Brandon Liesenfelt heard the pop, then looked behind and saw an explosion about 400 yards away. That happened more than three years ago, when he was patrolling the streets of Fallujah as a corporal in the U.S. Marines.
Today, he's logging onto computers in the quietude of the new Veterans Center at Vanguard University of Southern California. Liesenfelt, a Georgia native, hopes to earn a bachelor's in business administration from the Christian university in Costa Mesa.
His tuition is virtually free, thanks to the G.I. Bill drawn up by former President George W. Bush because, as Liesenfelt put it, "The president knew we were going to be going where the heat was."
For a period of 36 months, Liesenfelt said, he's entitled to $2,152 a month in rent and just over $3,000 a year per semester, or $387 per credit unit.
"The rent is based on the ZIP code," says Liesenfelt, who also receives $770 a month in disability payments for suffering a possible slipped disk, and for having caught pneumonia while a Marine, an affliction that left him with him scar tissue to the lungs, affecting his breathing.
But for the most part, Liesenfelt, 28, said he feels healthy, and a bit wealthy, these days, all the result of serving in the Marine Corps for four years between December 2005 and December 2009.
Because his service was in the post-9/11 era, he qualifies under the largest G.I. Bill in U.S history, second only World War II's G.I. bill, a massive undertaking that's partially responsible for the economic success of the booming 1950s.
If the aforementioned finances aren't an advertisement for all the reasons to enlist and fight terrorism overseas, Liesenfelt doesn't know what is.
And yet there are the obviously inherent risks in donning the regalia: He could have been killed or maimed or psychologically traumatized, all of which, "Praise God," he wasn't, he said.
And although he was honorably discharged from the corps last year, he's still on call for the next four years.
Still, he's one of the luckier ones to return stateside and take advantage of the finances doled out to him, which is why Vanguard University opened its new Veterans Center on Thursday night to much fanfare: It saw the likes of Liesenfelt coming.
"Our population of veterans has doubled in the last year," said assistant professor Jamie J. Brownlee, director of the School for Professional Studies. "It went from 15 students to 30 students, and we're expecting plenty more."
The veterans, she said, are studying an array of courses, from business to psychology to religion.
"One just walked in the other day and said, 'Hey, I think I want to do music,'" recounted Brownlee in her office, which is just down the hall from the Veterans Center in the Scott Center, a building on campus.
The main university campus is located at 55 Fair Drive across from the Orange County Fairgrounds, a stone's throw from the Costa Mesa Police Department.
Because it's a Christian university and relatively small, Liesenfelt, who wants to be a pastor, finds it a perfect fit.
"My hope is to get an M.A. in divinity and become a Navy chaplain," he said.
If you're unaware, the Marine Corps is actually a division of the Navy because more often than not, it provides the Marines transportation to the battle fields.
"Hopefully, once I get my master's, I'll be assigned to the Marines by the Navy," he said.
But for now, Liesenfelt is catching up on lost time. With only a high school diploma from the small town of Lilburn, Ga. — outside Atlanta — he's now catching up on college life.
He loves his creative writing class, and has even written a few poems and short stories about his experience in the city of Fallujah.