My platoon was under heavy machine-gun fire coming from across the Euphrates River. We ducked into ditches along a paved road that led to the Highway 8 bridge we were to secure. Right then, however, we were pinned down, and without the bridge, there would be no way of securing As Samawah, the small southern Iraq city.
Our sergeant stood and, waving his right hand over his head, said, "Alright, men, follow me." Well over 6 feet tall, the behemoth paratrooper grabbed a machine gunner and ran without fear into a haze of rocket-propelled grenades and bullets.
Within minutes, the enemy's position was taken out, and we moved back to the pavement.
Since leaving the service in 2006, I regularly e-mail my sergeant. He became a father figure to me and the other young guys in the platoon. When I had the opportunity to tell him that I am scheduled to graduate this coming May, I was pleased to hear he had retired from the military and would also be donning a gown and mortarboard. He was getting his degree in business.
"Wished I had done it earlier in life, but better late than never," he wrote back.
Packing away uniform and gun and picking up textbooks is a choice more and more veterans are making. By the time this article is published, America will be days away from the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And although Operation Enduring Freedom will see an increase in soldiers, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) predicts that a combination of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the winding down of both wars will increase veteran enrollment by 25 percent in coming years.
The transition is never easy for vets. Thirty-four percent of OIF and OEF veterans have faced multiple deployments, and 20 percent have displayed signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. Statistics show that only 25 percent of all veterans have a degree, and Department of Education figures show that only 3 percent of vets earn degrees within five years of entering college — compared to a rate of more than 30 percent for nonveteran students.
The SVA is a veteran-student advocacy group founded in 2007. The organization works to form local branches at universities and prides itself on pushing for the Post-9/11 GI Bill that came into effect last year.
The SVA reports on the odd challenges student veterans face, including a "lack of preparation by university systems ... unique social barriers ... loss of a sense of purpose ... and significant mental health barriers as a result of military service."
After four years as a paratrooper and three combat tours in Iraq, the years following my return home were rough.
Work was hard to find — the Department of Labor has said that unemployment numbers among 20-to-24-year-old veterans are triple that of nonveterans at the same age. Sleeping never came easy. Hell, even getting along with anyone was hard. Looking back on those years, they seemed harder than being in combat. In combat, I had a purpose. Back home, I was void of purpose and felt completely alone.
"Over there, you are surrounded by family, essentially," says Jason Martinez, a two-tour Iraq vet with the Air National Guard who's relaxing in a midtown Detroit café. "You work as a unit. There are many acting as one.
"But when you return home, you are on your own."
Martinez tells me he'd spent his first tour in Kirkuk, where his unit was immediately greeted by small-arms fire upon landing. His second tour brought him to Ballad, where he volunteered at the base's MASH, shuffling casualties on a gurney from and to Blackhawk helicopters.
"One guy was half gone," he says.
When he returned after his second tour, he began taking classes at Henry Ford Community College — "Little Baghdad," he calls it with a laugh. It was his first time taking classes in 10 years, but to him, it was much longer than that.
"A whole lifetime went by," he says, referring to his tours. "It is kind of hard to just jump right back into it."
As a guardsman, he received only a fraction of the funds his active duty counterparts did for school.
He got $340 for full-time plus $350 from the National Guard per month, almost $600 less than what active-duty vets made under the old GI Bill.
While Martinez juggled classes, family and full-time work, his grades slipped, and he found himself on academic probation.
Although he's still on academic probation, Martinez was able to quit his job and focus primarily on school under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is open to all veterans — active or reserve.
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a veteran's tuition is paid for in full, and the vet can receive a monthly stipend to help pay mortgages and a semester stipend to help pay for books.
But the GI Bill does nothing to cure the angst veterans feel in the classroom.
Our experiences are still with us, often causing veterans to feel a world apart from classmates.
Martinez explains that, while in class, he sometimes loses his cool when other students don't even know the difference between North and South Korea.
"They didn't know anything about current events," he says.
And when the Iraq war was brought up, he would state his opinion, then "nobody would want to talk to me."
Moments like that piss him off, Martinez says, and when he gets angry, the memories of his time spent in the MASH resurface.
In his office at Wayne State University's Student Veteran's Organization — a branch of the SVA — vice president and Navy vet Jason Wagner says, "Our objective right now is to streamline the process for veterans and make it a lot easier."
According to Wagner, Wayne State has the highest number of veterans enrolled in any Michigan higher-learning institution. What he hopes to create is an environment that reflects the military.
"We are just getting back to a unit and command style operation," he says. "Where it's 'I'm looking out for you on my right and you on my left.'"
He says that the university makes an effort to identify veterans struggling academically due to psychological issues from combat or the stress of classes.
To help ease the stress, SVA hopes to have more cooperation from universities.
At Wayne State, Wagner says they approved a veterans' resource center that will provide a quiet place for veterans to study. Second, the SVO provides camaraderie and peer mentoring for veterans struggling with classes.
Wagner wants to work with the university's mental health department to have it more readily prepared to handle war veterans.
He also hopes universities will be more willing to pay back money to students who have to withdraw late due to deployments, and to increase registration flexibility for those set to leave service in late summer.
A vet — after living in a perpetual climate of high stress and structure — coming to civilian life during a dismal job market only adds, exponentially, to the difficulty. That's why Wagner recommends veterans take immediate advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
"When I got out, I couldn't find a job. I drove myself crazy," Wagner says. "If [veterans] aren't constantly doing something, that can lead to problems.
"[College is] a great way to definitely decompress. That is why I encourage the university lifestyle."
He compared veterans returning from combat and then going to school to heroin addicts being treated with methadone to help ease them off the high. "I know it's probably the worst analogy in the world, right there, but it's true," Wagner says.
While some veterans struggle academically, others have discovered that their experiences have helped them in the classroom. In fact studies with Vietnam-era vets have found that, on average, they have higher GPAs than their nonveteran counterparts.
Eric Costantini, a Marine Corps vet with two tours in Iraq, cites himself as an example. In his second tour, he was a personal security officer to a colonel traveling around the Sunni Triangle.
Because he was on security detail, he was often responsible for escorting guests and dignitaries around the hazardous area. Costantini says he once came under fire with Chuck Norris — yes, the actor and mythological god — while on a USO tour, and had a sit-down chat with Sen. John McCain.
The conversation turns more somber when he talks of losing his childhood friend.
Days before leaving Iraq for the last time, Costantini explains that he'd been told by his parents that a friend he'd grown up with got deployed to Iraq, but he wasn't told where. One day, he had to respond to an ambush that had taken place and called a medivac for the wounded. One of the wounded died later, he says.
"When I found out it was [my friend], I went and paid my respects at his casket," Costantini says. "That got me pretty good."
When he got out of the Marines, he was ready to make a break from the military. "I was excited to get out of the Marine Corps, come home and move on with my life."
"I wore a memorial bracelet for two or three years, but I took it off," he continues. "I don't have animosity toward the military. Personally, it was a good experience."
And it made him a better student. He says that, before the military, he skipped more university classes than he attended and was expelled for bad grades.
After leaving the military — and once the Post-9/11 GI Bill was put into action — he began classes at Oakland Community College and transferred to Wayne State University.
"I enjoy learning, and I enjoy going to school," Costantini says. "I have been on the dean's list every semester. This time around, I feel a lot more focused."
I'm with Costantini. Had it not been for time in the trenches, walking dust-laden streets and sleeping in crumbled buildings, I wouldn't have developed the discipline needed to make it to graduation. And, as if ready to run into a haze of bullets, I feel ready for whatever future beyond school awaits me.Robert Guttersohn is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]