Kevin Piercy went across the world and back between the time he enrolled at Fresno State a decade ago and his second go-around, when he came back three years ago in hopes of completing his undergraduate degree.
Piercy, 27, filled the gap with six years in the Army. The 2004 Buchanan High School graduate enrolled and quickly dropped out of Fresno State to enlist, then spent several years stateside stationed in North Carolina and 15 months in Iraq tracking down enemy leaders and captured U.S. soldiers.
He liked the promise of a lifelong career in service.
But a feeling of unease about his duties -- and then the sudden death of an older brother who was serving in Afghanistan -- brought a change of heart. The decorated Army sergeant filed as a conscientious objector and ultimately left the military in 2010. Getting his degree, which wasn't easy since dropping out had pushed his GPA below 1.0, became his new mission.
"I was able to get a second chance on life, really," he said. "I got a new career out of this, I've met some of the greatest people I know at this school and I'm looking forward to taking that with me throughout the rest of my life."
It didn't surprise Piercy's mother, Carol Berberich, when he quit school to serve. Even as a toddler, Piercy took an interest in the military, once finding her in the kitchen to salute and declare, "Reporting for duty, ma'am."
Childhood photos show Piercy dressed as a miniature soldier. In middle school, Berberich remembers her son writing a school essay about his belief that every 18-year-old should have to sign up for some type of service -- military or otherwise.
"Even at that young age he already understood that freedom isn't free and we need to do something to pay forward for the freedom we'll have as adults," she said.
But it was "kind of shocking," she said, when all three of her boys signed up within just a few months of each other. Piercy's older brother Eric joined, then Kevin and Brian, Eric's twin, followed.
Eric's stint ended after he was injured during basic training. Brian and Kevin were stationed for several years at Fort Bragg, N.C., before they each shipped off base -- Brian to Afghanistan and Kevin to Iraq.
Kevin Piercy recalls living out of a Humvee with his intelligence team for more than six months, moving 16 times in an effort to track down the bodies of two captured American soldiers.
He grows quiet when asked about his service. Some details, he said, he's not allowed to share.
"Seeing the suffering going on in the country, seeing how it affected us, how it affected them, things no person should have to accept ... some people are able to harden themselves to that and to press on and do their job," he said. "Unfortunately, I was not one of those people. I felt too much and I couldn't stand by for that."
His time was marked by anguish: Brian was killed when an improvised bomb exploded, just two weeks before he was scheduled to return home. Upon his own return, Piercy brought home several commendations and medals -- and an unexpected fervor to change careers.
He took a year off after leaving the service in 2010, then reapplied to Fresno State and several other universities. No school wanted him. Dropping out years earlier with less than a semester under his belt resulted in a .88 GPA, far below university admission standards.
After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Houa, he petitioned Fresno State to let him back in. Once accepted, he quickly found his niche in the philosophy department.
Competing as part of the university's mock trial team helped him pick a new career as a lawyer. Team coach and adjunct criminology professor Gordon Park said Piercy will be an "impassioned lawyer" because of his military experiences.
"In about 10 years I don't want to see him in court, he's going to be awesome," said Park, a partner at McCormick, Barstow, Sheppard, Wayte & Carruth law firm. "He's got great passion, a great sense of humor. I just respect the fact that he was able to come back and do this."
Piercy and his wife, who is due with their first child in July, are now packing up their home to move for law school. Piercy will go to either the University of California at Davis or the University of Southern California to study civil rights law next fall.
"I fought for the rights of the people, my brother died for the rights of the people, I have friends who died for the rights of the people, and sometimes people need to be protected from the government overstepping its bounds," he said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.