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Class helps veterans increase camaraderie

BY ARIANA WITT | NOVEMBER 04, 2010 7:20 AM

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Adam Connell has been active in the U.S. Navy for five years.

In that time, he's seized tons of cocaine and countless kilos of marijuana from narcoterrorism groups in South America. He provided air support to Marines and Army troops during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Connell, a 24-year-old University of Iowa freshman, said his experiences haven't resulted in major post-deployment issues such as depression or post traumatic stress disorder but said he knows plenty of comrades whose time in the service has.

"I always thought that was weird," Connell said. "How can you and I both experience the same thing, but your life is forever changed because of it?"

He has the opportunity to answer that question Monday nights in E226 Alder Journalism Building.

Biological Psychology & Post-Deployment Issues, a new class at the UI this fall, is aimed at helping Connell and other veterans understand the difficult situations they may face after returning to a civilian life, said Tamara Woods, a UI doctoral student in counseling psychology and the course's instructor.



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Monday night, eight veterans sat in a circle, discussing suicide. Despite the gravity of the topic, the few who spoke were uncensored and matter-of-fact as they described their experiences with comrades' suicides.

Then the discussion turned to sleep. Connell said his unit was short men in the Panama Canal and had to adjust their sleep schedules to compensate.

"When I came home after a year, I'd sleep for six hours, then I'd be up for six hours," he said. "This really upset my family."

Woods asked the class why returning veterans might have sleep problems.

The answer was unanimous: "The enemy can't see you at night."

The course mainly focuses on the biological underpinning of post-deployment issues along with connecting UI veteran students with those who share their military experience. Eight veterans are currently enrolled.

All have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, Woods said.

"It's amazing how quickly everyone connected on that first day of class," Woods said.

UI senior Samantha Szlembarski, a veteran of the 2007 Iraqi troop surge, said arriving at the UI and being around so many non-veteran students was somewhat nerve-racking.

"Now you're coming into an area were there are a whole bunch of people all around you," the 27-year-old said. "When you take introduction courses in this huge lecture hall of 300 people, you're like, 'oh boy.' "

Szlembarski spent her tour of duty in Camp Cropper, a detention site near Baghdad, where she said it was normal to "watch your back." Now she said her course with fellow veterans at the UI is "somewhat of a breather."

Woods said the class is meant to provide a sense of camaraderie among student veterans.

"I can't sit down and tell some random person all the stuff I've been through and expect them to relate and or actually understand," Connell said.

With a little sister in the Navy on active duty and an older brother who recently deployed to Afghanistan, Szlembarski said the class is beneficial.

"You can kind of justify it and help them understand, it's not just me," she said. "I like being able to put an explanation behind the behavior."

Woods first taught the class at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids last spring, Woods said, as an attempt to tackle academic retention after noticing a drop out rate among VA patients.

This is the first semester it has been offered at the UI.

The UI graduation rate for veterans is 15 percent below those of non-veterans, according to a 2009 UI Veterans Task Force Report.

The American Council on Education estimated that military undergraduates represented 4 percent of all undergraduates in U.S. postsecondary education for the 2007-08 academic year, and 2 million veterans are expected to pursue a college education because of the 2008 GI Bill.


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