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Ten years into War on Terror, student-vets discuss effects of war

BY JANET LAWLER | SEPTEMBER 09, 2011 7:20 AM

Lars Headington stands with an American flag near his home in Iowa City on Thursday, September 8, 2011. He enlisted straight out of high school in 1997.
(The Daily Iowan/Christy Aumer)
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Amanda Irish was going to be a dancer when she graduated from high school in 2002, but on Sept. 11, 2001, she decided to become a Marine.

Now, she can’t walk out of a crowded lecture hall without a sense of distressed hyperawareness as people close in behind her.

After dragging on for 10 years, the U.S. War on Terror has waned from the public eye. However, for student veterans, the wars are inescapable.

Irish, 27, is working on her second bachelor’s in pre-med and human physiology and is the president of the University of Iowa Veterans Association. She enlisted soon after 9/11, during her senior year of high school.

Two weeks after she graduated, she began training as a nuclear/biological/chemical weapons defense specialist, and she served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2006.

“There is a duty to serve your country, and a lot of people don’t feel it,” Irish said as she pointed out that military servicemen and women make up fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population. “We don’t need everyone to serve, but the burden gets put on fewer than 1 percent to carry everyone.”

John Mikelson, the UI Veterans Center coordinator, said student servicemen and women make up slightly fewer than 2 percent of the student population here. There are approximately 500 student veterans, 35 of whom are on active duty — up from 360 last spring.

“They are a very nontraditional student,” Mikelson said. “Do the rest of the students feel the impact of the war? I don’t know. I do know student veterans when they hear the radio say something’s going on in Ramadi, they can find it on a map.”

Both Irish and Mikelson said the nontraditional qualities of student-veterans make reintegration into civilian life, especially college life, challenging.

“It sucks,” Irish said. “So many things are the hardest thing for us. Maybe you have a wife and child.

If not, you might be divorced or looking for one. Now you have to balance a home all by yourself and on top of that try to focus on school work, which we haven’t done since we were in high school.

We just followed orders; we never did critical evaluating or wrote papers. It’s like sending a toddler to college. Not to mention our mental health — everyone is screwed up.”

‘An alternative universe’

Tamara Woods — a pre-doctoral intern at the Iowa City Veterans Administration Hospital under the direction of neuroscience doctor Michael Hall — is the instructor for Life After War Post

Deployment Issues, a class only open to student veterans.

Woods said student-veterans are often significantly older than their freshman classmates, have advanced training in specific areas, and have gathered much more experience in the four years they were, as Irish said, “in an alternate universe.”

Woods also said around 20 percent of veterans will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said it depends on the conflict, but PTSDcould be more prevalent in wars such as the War on Terror in which there was no frontline and no safe zone.

“They are coming back with a host of things including chronic pain from carrying heavy packs and PTSD,” Woods said. “This puts them at a disadvantage when compared with other students; it’s harder to concentrate they feel more on edge and possible anxiety and depression.

“They need to know they are not alone, this is not unusual, not a weakness. PTSD is not a weakness especially. These are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.”

Woods said there are many misconceptions about PTSD, but it is most simply a hyperawareness of the environment. She said a more severe symptom is the re-experiencing of events from certain stimuli such as loud noises or crowded rooms. Woods has even spoken to administration about educating faculty as to veterans returning with PTSD and how to accommodate them.

“But does that stop some freshman from throwing a chair from behind you? No,” Irish said.

‘Socially, we just don’t relate’

Mikelson said the job of the UI Veterans Center is to try to help as much as possible by reintegrating and socializing returning servicemen and women through mostly providing a place for them to meet others similar to themselves, people to whom they can connect with most easily.

“When you’re 26 and a freshman, it’s hard to hang out with your 18-year-old classmates in the IMU,” Mikelson said.

The Veterans Center also helps student veterans find community-related activities and services, everything from housing to daycares, Mikelson said. Irish said that even though veterans try to distance themselves, they do try to assimilate.

“If you saw me on campus, you would never know I was a veteran. I don’t have the camo backpack; I don’t wear my dog tags; I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. I have a Marine tattoo, but no one’s gonna know that,” she said as she pointed out her attire — a white dress, sandals, and beaded necklace set off artfully by her tattooed arms, one of which depicts an eagle emblazoned on a globe clutching a banner.

“But socially, we just don’t relate. When I was 21 or 22, I joined a sorority — that was awful. They were all just trying to hook up. I found no sense of friendship or camaraderie as I had in the military,” Irish said.

As Irish pointed out, most veterans don’t want to be separated from the crowd.

“A lot of people don’t want handshakes and pats on the back or asked what it’s like to kill somebody,” Irish said. “God, no one wants to be asked that.”

‘I never envisioned a 10-year war’

Lars Headington, 32, has been out of the military since the early 2000s. Now describing himself as dissasociated with his military career, he is working on his second bachelor’s degree at the UI.

He enlisted out of high school in 1997. He was cleaning the dining room at the barracks while taking classes to enter military intelligence when he put down the broom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to watch the television.

“I had joined when it wasn’t a frightening thing to join the military. We had the attitude that America was on top, and there was no chance we would ever have to fight. Just stay in for two years and get our benefits,” Headington said. “I never envisioned a 10-year war.”

Headington recounted his experience in the war lightly. He remembers moving into Saddam Hussein’s vacant palace and living there for the months he was in Baghdad, likening it to MTV Cribs.

“Everything you didn’t think you could marble, was still marble; it was a pain to mop,” he said.
“I never felt my duty to fight terrorism; I just followed orders,” said Headington. “I don’t want to associate as a vet in college. I remember sitting in my classes and never volunteering I had been in the military. I said I was from Houston; I didn’t want to be a veteran. I’m done sacrificing; I’m not expendable to anyone anymore.”

‘I think Americans have tuned out’

Headington said the 9/11 attacks created a generation of soldiers who felt compelled to protect their country. However, with every year the war drags on, the disconnect between the country and the people who fight for it grows.

“I think Americans have tuned out,” Irish said. “God, can [campus students] even find Afghanistan on a map? That’s just gross.”

Dane Hudson, former vice president of College Young Democrats of Iowa, was in seventh grade during the 9/11 attacks.

And though he agreed there is a disconnect between Americans and the war, he attributed it to the fact that so many young voters were only in elementary or junior high school 10 years ago.

“There’s no draft, so the mindset is out of sight out of mind; it’s not a problem, so no need to advocate it,” he said. “It makes me sad how very far away it is in the mind of the public.”

Hudson said he supports the cause of fighting terror, but that other auxiliary wars were unreasonable, a stance that 26-year-old veteran Drew Hjelm agreed with.

Hjelm said the War on Terror had cultivated a culture that appreciated military service but didn’t think through what it was actually appreciating.

“In hindsight through reflection, the War on Terror wasn’t necessary nor a good thing; it accomplished the opposite of making America safe,” Hjelm said. “After 10 years and $8 trillion of national-security spending, 6,000 lives, they finally got the guy they could have gotten in 2001 just doing some paperwork.”

Hjelm said a lot of students don’t pay attention to the war because many were born into it — they never had an opportunity to know what normal was like.

“Our generation doesn’t vote, so even if it had an opinion, it wouldn’t be heard,” Hudson said. “Even if it doesn’t affect you, you can stand up for someone else who might be in harm’s way.”

After 10 years, the effect of the War on Terror has been felt among few. Although the consensus of opinion was that it had made the U.S. as a country more vigilant and aware of its vinicibility, it will never be felt as much as wars such as Vietnam or World War II were.

“How many people are going to read this?” Irish asked. “If by some rare chance they do, how many will actually be touched by it?”


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