Shane Phelps Law. Endows A&M Veterans Scholarship
As the bus neared the underpass outside the back gate, everyone suddenly stopped talking. It was early morning and I, along with about 30 other young men, had just arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. I was 19. The rest of the short ride past the sentries at the gate and into MCRD was uncomfortably silent. The apprehension, and even fear, was palpable. We just had no idea what to expect. The bus came to a stop just outside the receiving barracks where new recruits, hoping to become Marines, were processed into their new lives.
In the darkness, a tall rigid figure stepped on to the bus. In a firm and loud voice he said, “You have 30 seconds to get off the bus…and 10 seconds are already gone! Move!” I will never forget that voice.
In that moment, my life changed. The next few hours were a disorienting flurry of yelled commands, issued uniforms and supplies, frenzied “Sir, Yes Sirs,” shaven heads…and more yelling. We barely slept that night before being roused at 5:30 a.m. by a trashcan being thrown down the middle of our squad bay. So began 13 weeks of Marine Corps Recruit training. Over the next three and a half months, we learned to march, shoot, climb hills with backpacks and rifles, rappel from 60-foot towers, recite our general orders, respect the chain of command, run for miles, tread water for more than an hour in uniform with our rifles held above our heads, not panic when gassed with powerful tear gas, and fight. It was the most difficult adventure of my life and my proudest accomplishment. I graduated from boot camp and became a United States Marine.
I joined the Marines at 19 because I had few options at that point in my life. My parents were divorcing after twenty years and I had nowhere to go. I had just finished a year in junior college and did not have the money to move on to a four-year college. My father was a Marine recruiter at the time and he encouraged me many times to consider enlisting before the Vietnam-era GI Bill expired on December 31, 1976. Eight days before the deadline, I joined. I served three years on active duty and left the Marine Corps in 1980 as a sergeant. I had considered re-enlisting, but was strongly encouraged by my commanding officer to get out and return to college. Looking back, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without the experience of serving in the military.
I left California and drove to Texas, where my mother had moved, in a Chrysler Cordoba. It wasn’t my car. I was paid by a car transport service to drive the car to Texas. And so, I arrived in Texas with $600 in my pocket and a vague plan to attend college.
Living with my mother in Bay City, Texas, I worked as a proofreader and photographer for a small daily newspaper in Matagorda County for several months. I applied to just one college, because I was clueless about such things, and was lucky enough to get accepted. The college was Rice University in Houston and, as it turns out, it was a pretty good university and kind of hard to get in to. Before the Marine Corps, I had a miserable academic high school record, having basically spent two of my high school years on the beach in Encinitas, California. After I barely graduated from high school, I attended a junior college in Stockton, California, and did very well. When I joined the Marines, I had a year of junior college behind me with a very good GPA; in retrospect, not the kind of academic record that would have gotten me in to a school like Rice. Looking back, I believe I was accepted to Rice University because I was a veteran of the military. I guess I stood out a little from all the 17-year-old valedictorians. My colonel and my commanding general had written very nice recommendation letters for me and my SAT score was pretty good, but having served in the Marines obviously helped.
After graduating from Rice with an English degree, I applied to law school. I was on my own and had worked my way through Rice as an administrative clerk at the UT Health Science Center in the Houston Medical Center across from the Rice Campus. I also had the GI Bill. I had very little extra money when I was in college and I remember the financial struggles very well. So, because I had little extra money, I only applied to one law school, The University of Texas School of Law. I did not do what every other sensible law school applicant did and apply to a number of schools to make sure I was accepted somewhere. I only applied to one because it was the only one that did not charge an application fee. All of the other law schools did and I just didn’t have that kind of money. Rice was a wonderful experience for me and I graduated with a respectable GPA. Coming from a good undergraduate school like Rice coupled with a decent LSAT score helped me get in to UT, but I think my Marine experience sealed the deal.
Law school was difficult for me. I enjoyed the study of law and ultimately finished well into the top half of my class, but I struggled financially all through law school. In fact, after a month or so into my first year, I could not continue because I simply could not support myself and attend law school full time. I went to one of the deans of the school, T.J. Gibson, and explained my circumstances. Dean Gibson said he understood and gave me a letter of automatic admission for the following year. During the next year, I sold batteries, tires, jewelry, and furniture at Montgomery Wards to save money to return to law school. I also joined the Texas National Guard to help with expenses and to take advantage of a program that forgave student loans in exchange for each year of service in the Guard.
The next fall, I reentered law school. I was able to devote myself full-time to my first year. During my second and third years in law school, I worked 20-30 hours a week for a small criminal defense firm in Austin to pay my bills and stay in school. Again, I also had the benefit of the GI Bill.
And so I graduated from law school. I went on to serve almost 20 years as a prosecutor and have been in the private practice of law for the past five years. In fact, this coming January 1 will mark five years exactly.
My practice has gone well. I am proud and enormously happy to say that I have been the happiest, busiest, and most fulfilled of my life these past five years. And, for the first time in my life, I am financially secure and prospering. But, I will always remember what a struggle it was to come out of the military, on my own, and work my way through college and law school. And I will never forget that my military service shaped me into the young man who managed to make his way through college and law school and become an attorney.
And so, it is time to pay it forward.
At Texas A&M University, known for its famous Corps of Cadets, there is an elite company of former military combat veterans struggling, as I did, to make ends meet, further their educations, and create a future for themselves. This group of remarkable young men and women, who have proudly served their country in combat as members of our armed forces, is called Delta Company. Delta Company was formed in 2007 and comprises about 25 combat veterans. Unlike other members of the Corps of Cadets, they can live off campus. A large percentage of them are married and supporting families. Having served their country in wartime and now returning to civilian life to build their futures, these are the finest men and women our country has to offer.
I did not serve in combat; I served in peacetime. But, I do remember vividly the struggle to make my way in the civilian world and survive financially while trying to attend college and law school. I also remember every little encouragement and assistance that helped me get through and graduate.
As I have said in past blog posts, there is no way to fully repay these men and women for the sacrifices they have made so that we can remain free.
In the spirit of helping those who have served our country and honoring the members of Delta Company and other combat veterans attending Texas A&M, Shane Phelps Law. recently endowed the Jean (’87) and Shane Phelps Aggie Veterans Scholarship through the Texas A&M Foundation. The scholarship will provide financial assistance to members of Delta Company each semester in perpetuity. When, and we can only hope that it will be soon, the numbers of veterans who have served in combat decreases, the scholarship will continue to benefit veterans of the military who are enrolled full-time at Texas A&M.
Over the coming years, we will continue to add to the principal of the endowed scholarship so that we can increase the amount of the scholarships and the numbers of those who receive it.
As Veterans Day approaches, it is the perfect time to recognize the sacrifice of the young men and women of Delta Company and other combat veterans attending Texas A&M and do everything possible to help them recover their lives and realize their dreams. They deserve it.
I remember what it was like and I am more proud than I can say to be able to help in some small way.