Their path to graduation began on the battlefield.  Veterans of the war on terror, the skills they learned as Marines made it possible to endure rigorous Ivy League academics. But it's the corps buddy system – a brotherhood that looks out for each other – that got them here and helped them through to graduation.

“I wouldn't be here if I hadn't have joined the Marine Corps," Jason Lemieux, a veteran and soon-to-be graduate, said. "It just wouldn't have happened."

Lemieux will don cap and gown and graduate from one of the country's top schools, Columbia University in New York, alongside his buddies and fellow Marines Brendan Rooney and Kevin Stendal.  He credits Rooney, a former roommate for pushing him to apply.

Rooney, the de facto leader of the small group and president of the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia, was attending the university and refused to let Lemieux settle for less than his abilities.  Following the Corps tradition of always looking out for your fellow soldier he called him up.

“As a buddy I said, ‘you need to do this. You don't belong anywhere [else] you belong at a school like this,’” he says.

Thinking back on Rooney’s call, Lemieux says it was exactly what he needed to get motivated.  “I initially was kind of surprised.  I had kind of set my sights a little bit low at first I think. But it was kind of like the only kick that I needed to, to really jump up and go for it.”

Lemieux successfully applied then returned the favor by encouraging another Marine, 42 year old, Kevin Stendal to return to school.

Stendal laughs remembering a little ribbing he got from his friend, “I don’t remember the exact wording but the way he put it was something to the extent of, ‘you know it is Columbia, you might not get in, but you NEED to apply because it’s a chance of a lifetime.’”

He got that chance and now will graduate with Rooney, Lemeiux and 19 other former soldiers.

More veterans attend Columbia than any other Ivy League college with over 300 enrolled in the 2010 – 2011 school year.

Dean Peter Awn who runs the School of General Studies at Columbia tells Fox News having such skilled men and women at the university is a great benefit to the school.  “We have linguists, brilliant Arabists, people who've been working in intelligence, technology, in covert operations, I mean this is a very high-end crowd.”

A pioneer in recruiting soldiers to come back to school after serving their nation, Columbia is a founding member and the first Ivy League to join a new initiative called the U.S. Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program – which helps vets continue their higher education.

Dean Awn is quick to point out the vets have to work just as hard as any other student. They get no special favors.  “I say this rather bluntly… this is NOT Affirmative Action for veterans."

Marine vet Stendal says men and women in uniform are up to the task. “I think it's a matter of the people who wind up applying are people who are looking to push themselves a little bit harder because it's what they did in the military.”

That military attitude is one Brendan Rooney is counting on for future Marines and other veterans.

“If they want a rigorous education and they want to excel I would encourage them to apply to a place like Columbia if they think they have what it takes. This experience here has changed my life.  The chain will continue, people will continue to tell people to apply here.  I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.”