CLEVELAND — John Schupp pulled his car onto a country road lined with half-grown corn. Dark clouds obscured the sun, and he couldn't tell which way pointed east or west. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
He was lost.
But he reminded himself of why he was here — of his self-appointed mission to find the soldiers and bring them back to college. It was his turn now. He pressed down on the gas pedal of his old gold-colored Honda, remembering a conversation.
In the college chemistry class he taught, a student back home from duty in Kosovo described to him what it was like to be a veteran on campus. She felt like an outcast, she said.
The comment stirred Schupp — who had always admired soldiers' sacrifices to protect people they'd never met. He was not a veteran himself and even said the thought of dying terrified him.
He starting asking around. On America's college campuses, he learned, the young woman's reaction was not unusual. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are being swallowed up by the crowds. In class, many scan the windows for snipers and warily size up fellow students. Set adrift from the military, they can grow discouraged and disappear.
And so the professor who never wanted to fight realized he had a battle on his hands. The ones who had protected him for so long needed his protection now.
His first stop: the diner in a small Ohio town, where a soldier's mother waited patiently for him.
He wished he'd remembered to bring a map.
It's tough to refuse a guy like Schupp, who talks fast, is equal parts deferential and pushy, and doesn't hesitate to ask deeply personal questions.
What's your passion in life? What do you want to do with yourself?
A history buff, he pored over books and dissected statistics about veterans, searching for an answer in the numbers. He read about the 7.8 million World War II veterans who used their GI bill benefits to earn college diplomas. He prodded military officials for facts.
Today, just 8 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are fully using the $36,000 for college guaranteed by the GI bill, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The military doesn't track graduation rates.
The veterans of the "greatest generation" had proved it could be done, he thought. What was going wrong?
Slowly, the big idea lit up his brain. The proof was in the past. In 1945, veterans outnumbered everyone else on campus.
"They succeeded as a group, as a unit," he said excitedly, as if sharing a secret. He leaned forward, gripping his coffee mug. "So I'm recreating the same thing that happened then."
What he needed to do seemed simple: form a military unit within the classroom. He needed to disguise counseling sessions as English and Math 101. The unit would survive together, no soldier left behind.
If veterans took classes together — without other students around — they could help each other through the transition to civilian life.
"So I said let's change the environment, see what happens," he said. "Experiment."
He approached camouflage-clad guys in the hallways. He landed interviews in local newspapers touting veterans-only classes. He also held a veterans' fair — but nobody showed up. Later, he learned a possible explanation: "They're told if you're in a crowd, you're as good as dead."
That summer, Schupp drove all over the state — to county fairs, to small-town diners — peddling his idea like a salesman. He met with military mothers and wives, who passed along word of an all-veterans program to soldiers finishing deployments overseas.
He campaigned like a politician, donning a suit and tie for visits to the Capitol, asking lawmakers to fork over $100,000 for a program that didn't exist.
And they did.
So it happened that on a cold December afternoon in 2007, administrators at Cleveland State University found themselves in the curious position of having public funding available for an academic program they hadn't yet approved. Veterans sat in the lecture hall as Schupp's numbers flashed slide by slide, making a case for them.
Steve Slane, an associate dean, recalled the reaction of many: "Wait a minute, this is a good idea, maybe we should be doing this."
The program, christened Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran, or SERV, would consist of four core classes — history, math, biology and chemistry — taught by volunteer teachers. It would have an office squeezed between Women's Studies and Disability Services.
With just 14 veterans enrolled, some classes would have no more than four students, costing the university thousands of dollars.
Schupp knew it was a gamble.
That didn't scare him. He already knew what failure was like.
The irony was he never wanted to be a chemist.
He had dreamed of being an actor. Fame and fortune and Hollywood. His mother discouraged that as unrealistic.
For a time after college, he ran his own company growing crystals used in Lasik eye surgery. Shards of crystals grew in furnaces he built himself.
But there was a big major risk: If power went out — for instance, because of lightning — and the furnaces failed, the batch he'd been painstakingly growing for weeks would be destroyed.
"It got to the point where I hated thunderstorms," Schupp remembered.
One day in 2003, there was a bad failure, a big loss of crystals. In the end, Schupp was forced out of his own business.
He was unemployed, divorced, devastated. His career as a chemist was finished. He took odd jobs to pay the bills and cared for his aging parents on the northern Ohio farm where he'd been raised.
His father had been a chemistry teacher. As he stumbled through those bleak days, Schupp decided to try his luck in the classroom and took a part-time job. At the blackboard, facing rows of attentive faces, he remembered once again the thrill of having an audience.
"To be a teacher, you gotta perform," he said.
Nowadays, he's still happily teaching but he's also got a new job, promoting and running SERV. And it's going better than anybody could have expected.
"How did math go, Lenny? It go okay?"
"Johnny, you getting it all right?"
Two veterans walked in late, and Schupp anxiously peppered them with questions, a stub of chalk in his hand. His students leaned across the aisles conferring over decimal points and zeros.
One guy frowned at his notebook, grimacing over an equation. Jeff Schaefer, a former Marine with tattooed arms and a striped polo shirt, noticed right away.
"Justin, you want me to show you the way I do it?" he asked.
Every student that was in this humming room had served in the military. Most were in their 20s. Many had been part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Some came because their wives or girlfriends told them to. For others, it was word of mouth: Did you hear about the professor who's teaching classes just for vets?
There's Jeff DeLuca, 26, who hid in his bedroom with the blinds closed for two years after he lost most of his unit in Fallujah. Shrapnel is still buried in his shoulder, a reminder of the time he knocked a fellow Marine aside to take a hit from a grenade. The VA deemed him unemployable, 60 percent disabled, a classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Remembering things is a struggle. He eyes other students suspiciously in the hallways. Running in a loop in his mind is a gunman-barges-into-the-classroom scenario.
And yet, seated beside other veterans, he could relax. He burrowed down and focused on the work. He can't explain why.
"I just know that I don't have to protect anybody," he said.
There's Schaefer, 24, who made quips in class but turned reflective when asked what the program has done for him.
"It's kind of like our classes are our mission now," he said.
There's Bob Mastronicola Jr., 44, who spent 24 years in the military and has been trying to earn his bachelor's degree since 1984. It was always God and country first, education later, he said. He travels to military demobilization ceremonies, recruiting new soldiers to join the program.
He still gets discouraged sometimes, but Schupp won't let him quit.
Schupp greeted the veterans when they first stepped onto campus. He took them out for coffee. He got them acquainted with the registrar's office and the dining hall.
"He came and picked me up, got me down here within three days and had all the paperwork done," said Schaefer, who didn't have a car at the time.
Veterans were sprawled around the program's office typing up papers, lounging on the bench they swiped from the hallway. It's a safe haven, this place. Here they don't have to absorb the curious looks from other students. They don't have to hear the questions: "Have you ever killed anyone?" They don't have to dwell on the things they've seen that they would prefer to forget.
Schupp, though, can draw them out. He wants to know about their wives, their lives, their homework. As he stood in the doorway joking around, the veterans discreetly passed around a coffee can filled with cash. They were buying him another gift for no particular reason. Last year's present, an American flag, was propped up near his desk.
"I tell him every day, 'Man, you changed my life,'" DeLuca said. "'You don't even know.' And like, I get chills. I wanna cry."
Now in its third semester, the program that started with so few has swelled to more than 100. The remarkable thing, Schupp said, is that the veterans need only a semester or two before they're ready to join the masses.
They've hit some stumbling blocks. A class on Iraqi history — Schupp's idea — didn't go over too well. Not a single veteran cared to spend time studying that country's troubled past.
"Guys were walking out," Schupp acknowledged.
Soldiers are on their way home from Iraq in growing numbers. And the military expects growing numbers to take advantage of the new, revamped GI bill that kicks in this fall, offering better college benefits. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has sponsored a bill inspired by Schupp's program that authorizes grants for colleges to establish campus centers for veterans. It was folded into the Higher Education Act of 2008 and awaits funding from Congress.
And the military has taken notice. Transition briefings for returning soldiers will likely begin incorporating information about Schupp's program, said Brig. Gen. Arnold N. Gordon-Bray, deputy commanding general for the U.S. Army Cadet Command at Fort Monroe, Va.
Enamored with Schupp's success, universities in at least a dozen states — from Mississippi to Pennsylvania, Arizona to New York — are working on all-veterans programs, using Cleveland State as a model.
But they have needed his help. A few weeks ago, Schupp climbed back into his car, his sights set on the desert.
"I'm on Route 66 in New Mexico. It's tremendous," he yelled happily into the phone when a reporter reaches him.
He's on the road again. This time, though, he knows where he's headed.