Student Veteran Brothers Find A Sense Of Home At Texas A&M
Lance and Blaze Belobrajdic’s paths rarely crossed during their decade-plus military careers. So when the time came to choose a university that would move them closer to their home in Houston, Texas A&M University seemed like a natural fit.
They may have only spent a year together on campus after more than 10 years of globetrotting, but in that brief time they had life-changing experiences they say would have been difficult to find anywhere else.
Lance, meteorology undergraduate student and ocean science and technology graduate student, enlisted in the Air Force in 2006 and served during three deployments during Operation Iraqi Freedom and later as a Special Operations Weather Team technician conducting environmental reconnaissance. He exited the military in 2016, but serves as a weather forecaster in the Texas National Guard.
Blaze, a 37-year-old aerospace engineering graduate student, entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 2001 and four years later was commissioned as a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps, deploying three times to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and one time attached to Special Operations Command – Africa.
Overlapping deployments meant meetings were few and far between, except for a couple reunions in Afghanistan in 2013 and when Blaze re-enlisted Lance in 2011. During that time, no matter where they went, they kept running into Aggies. Those encounters helped plant the idea of a future at Texas A&M, Lance said.
“North Houston is home,” Lance said. “It worked out that Texas A&M was right up the road and I could see family that I haven’t seen in a while.”
Lance enrolled at Texas A&M for the fall 2017 semester while still serving in the Texas National Guard and, like many students that semester, experienced some setbacks.
“My first week at Texas A&M was chaos,” he said. “That was right when Hurricane Harvey hit, so my first week of school I was forecasting in Austin.”
Lance credited the Veteran Resource & Support Center (VRSC) for helping him get back on track after missing the first week of classes.
“They went out and got my books and Blaze picked them up for me,” Lance said. “My geosciences professors also helped out. I never felt unsupported.”
Blaze joined Lance in College Station and had the same takeaway, saying veterans would be hard pressed to find better support from professors who understood his responsibilities with missing coursework due to training and veteran resources staff who helped him get acclimated to college life.
“I can’t say enough praise about them,” Blaze said. “Anyone coming back [to school after active duty] has never said a negative thing. You can tell how good something is by how many people have positive interactions with it.”
The Belobrajdic brothers moved into a house together for the 2017-2018 academic year, which meant reuniting with family, and for Blaze finding a sense of community he had been missing.
“One of the things I felt at first was a loss of camaraderie and a loss of people with shared experiences,” Blaze said. “But I had an immediate rapport with my brother.”
After a year together at Texas A&M the Belobrajdics each applied to be Tillman Scholars, a coveted scholarship awarded to student veterans based on service, scholarship, humble leadership and impact. Lance received the scholarship in 2018, and Blaze received his after a second attempt in 2019.
The designation not only provided support for their academic missions at Texas A&M, but leadership training and chances to engage with other Tillman scholars in Phoenix. For the Belobrajdics, it was validation for the years of work they had put into their academic and service pursuits.
“It was like a challenge for yourself,” Blaze said. “You never know if you’re good enough to be a part of that scholarship, so it was inspiring and reassuring to hear that we were.”
Nora Cargo, director of Scholarship & Veterans Services, said she is proud of Aggie veterans who join such a prominent group of scholars.
“Lance and Blaze have commendable service and proven leadership both in and out of the classroom. They are exemplary individuals who will have incredible impact in the future,” Cargo said. “This scholarship program provides more than funding – it provides a unique opportunity to belong to a dynamic network of individuals from across the country who support one another’s pursuits for the betterment of the nation.”
While Blaze continues to serve as a reservist, his academic career is beginning to wind down as he looks forward to graduation this summer.
“Getting involved with the master’s program has given me a lot of great exposure to different ideas and developing them with other folks,” Blaze said. “I know I won’t be a pilot for the rest of my life, so I know I’ll have great connections with people down the road.”
He added that it’s important for student veterans to lean on their military experiences to excel in college.
“With anything, you need to be receptive and open to change, be ready to learn and bring that ethic you gained from the military,” Blaze said.
Lance won’t receive his diploma until 2021 and will spend most of that time away from campus. He was selected to join NASA’s Pathways Pilot Program where he will get hands-on experience at each of NASA’s three space centers with future employment opportunities. He began his first rotation this past summer at Kennedy Space Center and will spend next semester at Johnson Space Center.
“A lot of the opportunities I’ve come across and the things done with NASA are because of being at a university like Texas A&M,” Belobrajdic said.
Having a desire to pursue a career at NASA and the support he receives on campus is why he encourages students — veteran and civilian alike — to chase their dream jobs.
“Pursue your passion. That’s the most encouraging thing I see pushed onto students from professors here,” Lance said. “Encouraging that and growing that in students is a really big thing. You’ll find out you have tons of resources and support to go do that.”