Nine men from all different walks of life first met at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.

Some ended up as roommates, some worked together. They were all in the same battalion and connected on a deep level — getting matching tattoos and starting a texting group chat that has continued for years (and evolved into their girlfriends having a similar texting chat).

When it came time for them to leave the Marines, they all had the same plan for their next step: Enroll at Arizona State University, earn a college degree and keep the friendship and camaraderie going for as long as possible.

“I hope at the end of the day that we all end up living on the same street, our kids all playing together,” said Edward Brady, 28. “For our mental health, I think we all need to be within an hour or two of each other.”

Brady, who graduates in the fall and plans to pursue a career in Homeland Security, was mostly joking, but he and the others all know the bond they have — and the support it has provided — is rare and should be not only appreciated, but maintained.

Veterans often struggle with mental health issues, for a myriad of reasons. But loneliness, isolation and a loss of purpose when transitioning out of military and into civilian life plays a big role.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of veterans getting mental health treatment grew 90% from 2006-2019. And veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population.

Devon Cristales, 28, said he and his friends (Brandon Tellez, Daniel Melendez, Devin McCord, Brady, Grant Bushman, Jacob Moore, Nicholas Burns and Ryan McCloskey) know they made a major difference in helping each other transition out of the Marines — providing the support and encouragement needed to not only survive but thrive.

“We don’t really want to be apart,” said Cristales, who graduated ASU with a degree in Business Management and minor in Real Estate this spring. “We have a bond. It’s been almost 10 years.”

Jerry Gonzales, a senior media relations officer at ASU and a veteran himself, met the men through the Pat Tillman Veteran’s Center at ASU. He recognized their amazing friendship, noting that when those in the military transition into civilian life, they can often be left adrift, struggling to make connections and find meaningful careers and relationships.

But he said this group is a remarkable success and shows the power of the relationships formed in the military.

“It’s a real sense of connection that they have,” said Gonzales. “And it’s a great way to transition out of the military, to do it with a group of friends who understand you and are at the same stage of life.”

Each of the men went through the transition program offered by the Marines, dubbed the Transition Readiness Program, or TRP. While it helped them, each of the men say at some point they were cut off from the military — and it was up to them to forge ahead with friendships and support.

Cristales, who plans to move to Dallas this summer to pursue a job with Vanguard, said that while he and some of his friends took part in the transition program offered by the Marines, it was really ASU’s veteran center that helped them the most.

“I didn’t know a thing about the GI Bill when I left the Marines,” he said. “But at ASU, they help you figure it all out. And then I had my friends, we were all going through it together, and we were all able to support each other and stay on each other to get stuff done.”

Melendez, who is 28 and planning for a career in the Peace Corps after he graduates in the fall, said one key component of their friendship is how they keep each other accountable — in school and in life.

“We all work to help each other to become successful, in whatever that looks like,” he said. “Life in the military for us was so regimented. And civilian life is more free-range. We have helped each other keep our eye on the prize. We are helping each other continue to grow as people.”

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