What do you say to the guy who just got back from Iraq? Out of place on campus, student veterans find themselves trying to adjust to being back in the United States and living in Ann Arbor. In their own words, three student service members talk about the challenges of life in and out of the military.

Brian Merlos
Photo courtesy of Derek Blumke
Brian Merlos
Derek Blumke (BEN SIMON/Daily)

Edward Byrne

It was the darkest night I had ever seen. The only visible light came from the 20 or so armored trucks in our convoy driving across what seemed like an endless stretch of desert. My heavy night vision goggles slammed against my eye sockets every time we hit a bump.

This sucks, I thought. I can’t wait to get out of the Corps. Things will be so much easier.

The chirp of the transistor radio interrupted my thoughts. The scout vehicle ahead of me came through and said that he had spotted something suspicious on the side of the road. It could be an improvised explosive device, he said, and he cut out.

Seconds later, I was blinded by a bright flash and a deafening bang.

“IED! IED!” my captain screamed. “Black 2 just got hit!”

The truck slammed to a stop, and I was thrown into the machine gun in front of me. No one else in the truck seemed to notice the hard stop, because they all had seat belts on. I, on the other hand, was on a gun turret on the top of the truck, with nothing to hold on to except the gun itself.

I swore under my breath and thought about how we had only been on the road for 40 minutes. There were more than 11 hours to go.

That was two years ago. Now, as a geology major at the University, I still think about that first convoy through Iraq. It was probably one of the defining moments of my life, and it will never leave my thoughts. But a few weeks ago, I faced a new, equally frightening task: My first day at the University.

When I graduated from high school, I never thought I’d be going to the University of Michigan. And I definitely never thought I’d be starting my freshman year four years after high school.

Here I am. And as I bike through campus, heading to class like everyone else, I can’t help feeling that the Michigan experience is a little different for me than it is for my fellow freshmen.

The other day on the Diag, I stopped my bike and looked at my fellow students, my new peers and new friends. I saw bright smiling faces, nervous frowns, and a group of friends laughing as they walked toward Angell Hall. But mainly, I saw kids. That’s what everyone looked like. Kids. A group of freshman guys walked past me, and I wondered if some of them have ever had to shave before.

I thought back to what it was like when I was 18, fresh out of high school. I couldn’t recall.

By the time I was on that first convoy in Iraq, I was 20 years old and had been in the Marine Corps for 2 of my 4 years in active duty. After the IED went off, we sat in darkness for about an hour before finding out that the truck’s armor plating had stood up to the blast and everyone inside Black 2 was OK – just a little deaf. I thanked God. My friend Josh had been in riding in the truck.

We started moving again and passed the spot where the bomb had gone off. I looked for the crater, but everything looked the same color green through the night vision goggles.

And on we drove. And drove. And drove.

The cold desert wind cut through my layer of military-issued camouflage and cold-weather gear. And I had always thought Iraq was hot. Apparently not in October. I ducked farther behind my machine gun in the hopes that I could absorb more of the heat coming from inside the HMMWV. Whatever, I thought. Things could be a lot worse.

Fall on campus is a stark contrast to fall in Iraq, and in different ways, it’s just as intimidating. Still, there are constant reminders that my friends are overseas facing real danger. A few days ago, I was walking past the flag on my way to class. It was at half-mast. I immediately thought it had been a bad day for us in Iraq. I asked a passing group of girls if they knew why the flag was lowered. One shrugged and walked past as if it didn’t matter. And why would it? It doesn’t affect her at all. I bit my tongue and kept on walking.

Freedom is funny in that sense. We have the freedom to care and the freedom not to. Walking through campus, you’d never suspect the country was at war. Everyone seems lost in his or her cell phone conversations or is jamming out to their iPod, wondering whether to party tonight or do homework.

As that night in Iraq wore on, someone saw another IED. We stopped and waited for the bomb experts to dismantle it or blow it up. Whichever came first. John, the Iraqi translator in my truck, started asking me questions about my home and my life. He was astonished that I actually volunteered for the Marine Corps and that I wasn’t forced to come to Iraq.

The driver, Bill, from the Bronx, laughed. In the U.S., he said, people were generally free to do what they wanted as long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s freedom. John said he didn’t quite get it. He told us about how his father and older brother were killed because they voiced disagreement with one of Saddam’s policies. The story left the truck in awkward silence. We were saved by the order to keep moving and Bill put the truck in gear.

Most of the conversations I have with people at the University about Iraq go just about as well as that conversation with John. Most guys I’ve talked to seem more interested in asking if I’ve ever killed anyone and most of the girls can’t seem to understand why anyone would join the military.

So I sat alone in class that first day. I didn’t know anybody, and it also looked like I was the oldest person in the room. Halfway through the lecture, I noticed that most of the students weren’t paying attention. One guy was passed out on his desk as the professor spoke. I thought back to the classes in the Marine Corps where we learned about spotting IED’s and suspicious people around our area of operation. I always paid attention. Everyone did. It wasn’t only my survival that depended on it. It was also the survival of my fellow Marines, my brothers in arms, and most important, my friends. So far, I’m getting the sense that Chemistry 130 isn’t like that.

We had been driving for 10 hours when the sun finally came up. I could barely keep my eyes open as I stared at the side of the road looking for anything that could be an IED. I prayed that if we passed one I would spot it before it took out any of the guys in the back of the convoy. My best friend Rob was on the machine gun turret of the truck behind me. He was probably as cold as I was, probably colder because he’s from East LA where the temperature never drops below 50. I was glad Rob had my back. We had been like brothers ever since we met at our military occupation school. We shared the misery, the dirt, exhaustion in the field, laughs at the bar and now the desert cold. He got me through the worst of times, and I saved him when his ass was on the line. Like brothers.

A few weeks ago, I got some solicitations for a different kind of brotherhood. I made my way through the maze of tables in the Diag for Festifall, and like all new students trying to meet people, I signed the e-mail lists for a few groups I’ll probably never join.

Frats?

“No,” I tell them all, “I’m already in a frat.”

“Which one?” They ask. I say “USMC” and keep walking.

Eventually I gave up looking for a suitable group. Whatever I thought I might find at Festifall seemed to have been nonexistent. But as I squeezed my way through the crowd, headed back to class, I stumbled across a modest setup with a sign that read, “Student Veterans Association at the University of Michigan.” With a sense of relief, I looked at the men behind the table and said, “This is where I need to be.”

After 11 hours on the road in Iraq, I could feel the dust caked on my face and inside my nostrils. My shoulders ached under the weight of my Kevlar body armor and the ammo strapped to it. Sleep, I thought. That’s all I need. Sleep. The truck slowed down and I felt a sense of dread at the prospect of another hour-long stop to search out another threat.

I peeked over the armor plating that surrounded me and saw the scout vehicle was parked on the side of the road ahead of us. I waved to my friend in the gun turret as we passed them. And then my heart leapt when I felt the truck begin to turn. I could see the familiar structure of a sentry post ahead. The gate opened and a young Marine Private, no more than 19 years old, waved us through. I turned around and I was thrilled to see the entire line of trucks follow us through the gate. Even though I knew the convoy would be the first obstacle of many I would face in Iraq, it was over. And I made it. I was home.

Derek Blumke

Derek,” My roommate said. “A plane just crashed into one of the Trade Centers.”

The news didn’t alarm me. I was sleeping at the time, and knowing my roommate as well I did, I remembered the last time I woke up with him in sight – there was a Playboy on my lap, a poorly drawn Sharpie mustache on my face and he had a camera in hand. Needless to say, I knew his bad sense of humor.

I assumed he was either playing some tasteless practical joke or a small Cessna crashed because of pilot error. Sluggishly, I wrote it off as an attempt to get attention, and tried to go back to sleep.

A few minutes later he came in again and said the second tower had been hit.

I still thought it was a joke, but my curiosity got the better of me. I got out of bed and made my way into the living room in time to see the first of thousands of replays of the second plane crashing into the South Tower.

My day was different from many students’ at the University. I didn’t watch the television for the next several hours from a classroom, trying to absorb what had just happened.

Instead, I put on my uniform, got into my roommate’s car, and we drove to our Air Force base to see what we could do. We also wanted to find out what country we would be deploying to.

It didn’t take long for us to find out.

Sept. 11, 2001 was the beginning of a long and unusual path that took me to Southwest Asia, propelled me through community college, and finally landed me here at the University, where I’m now enrolled as a junior majoring in psychology and political science. On campus, my life is a little more peaceful than my life in the military, but without the military, my story as a student wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Early Thanksgiving morning 2001, I boarded a leased commercial airplane bound for Southwest Asia along with a couple hundred Airmen. As we took our seats, a flight attendant spotted my friend sitting across the aisle with a knife and aggressively told him to hand it over. He quickly responded, “Look, lady, if you were going where we’re going you would want one too.”

She didn’t buy this answer and was only convinced the deviation from normal flight procedures was OK when the pilot told her to drop the issue.

That year, my Christmas, New Year’s Eve and 21st birthday were spent working on a flight line, sleeping in a tent and adhering to General Order Number 1: No alcohol. No gambling. No pornography. No fun.

Over the next four years, I deployed with my friends two more times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and helped fight the war I’m now reading about in textbooks.

The problem with being involved in the making of history is that you’re not as safe as you would be sitting in Angell Hall or staying at home with the TV on, drinking Kool-Aid. Although I was never involved in direct combat, on my last deployment in 2005 I had the pleasure of experiencing my first rocket attacks.

One night shortly after settling into my cot in the plywood hut I cynically called home, I heard two distinct whistling noises immediately followed by loud explosions .

I leapt out of bed and came out of my room at the same time as my friend who I was sharing a hut with. We looked at each other for no more than a second. Then, without a word, we scrambled to find our Kevlar and M-16s and ran out the door.

As a non-commissioned officer, one of my primary responsibilities was the welfare of the younger Airmen placed in my charge. Moving fast, I checked the other huts in the compound to make sure everyone was out, safe and in the shelter of the bunker.

When I opened the second door of the second hut, I saw a surprising sight. There, staring at me, were five Airmen, , motionless, like deer in headlights. I looked at them. Wide-eyed, they looked back at me.

After a few seconds like that, I shouted, “Move!”

Their response was nothing less than hilarious. Each one took off in a different direction, scrambling to find gear and get out of the hut.

In the end, the rockets damaged some buildings and a few vehicles, but no one was hurt. There were many more rocket attacks while I was there. On my last night in the compound, there were eight. But of my experiences while deployed, the one I remember most vividly doesn’t involve explosions.

I was standing under a plane with my arms deep inside one of the aircraft’s panels, changing a faulty part. It was so cold that I could see my breath, even through the pouring rain. My hands and feet were numb, my face was frozen, and I should have been miserable.

But I couldn’t stop smiling. Even as the freezing rain ran down my sleeves I kept thinking about the paperwork I had received a few weeks earlier informing me that I was approved to end my service commitment early to go to school. I kept thinking to myself, This is the last time I will ever do this.

Even though I knew I’d miss repairing planes in the freezing rain, the decision to get out of the military and go to school was one of the hardest I’ve ever made. Not because of the fears of not having enough money or because I wouldn’t be smart enough, though I had those thoughts. It was because I knew there wouldn’t be people looking out for me as we did for each other while serving.

The next year and a half after leaving active duty, I had feelings of worthlessness. I was getting straight A’s at the community college I was attending, but I felt as though I was doing nothing with my life. I wasn’t contributing to what was going on in the world. Instead, I went to classes and listened to lectures while my friends in the unit I had left behind were overseas.

Although I’m not deployed, I’ve found the undergraduate challenge is proving to be formidable in its own right.

When I got to the University of Michigan, I sat in class feeling out of place, not only because I was five years older than most of the students in the class, but because my experiences tended to set me apart. When I tell people I was in the service, their first expression is usually shock.

“You were in the military?” asked one girl, who was looking at me with astonishment. “Why would you do that?”

It was as if she had never seen one of us in real life before.

Experiences like that are common, and on countless occasions I proudly talked with people about being in the military and what it’s like. Most of the time I enjoyed explaining it. Many students I talked to knew little to nothing about the military. For many, our conversation would be their first contact with a service member. But after a while, the questions and the shock started to take their toll. As a student veteran at the University of Wisconsin once said, “I feel like a monkey in a cage.”

I missed talking with other service members. There’s a common ground you find easily with other people in the military and there’s a sense of purpose that comes with the job. After a few years overseas, you tend to develop a sense of humor that doesn’t always translate well into banter at house parties or small talk after class.

It wasn’t until May when I read an article about student veterans that I realized I wasn’t the only one in that position. I realized there must be other veterans on campus who felt the same way, who wanted and needed the social network of other service members.

So I made some calls, started working with the Student Activities and Leadership office, and set up a student veterans group on campus with the help of a few other veterans. There aren’t many of us here. But there are enough to create a presence on campus. Even if the group doesn’t go anywhere, though I think it will, it’s already been a huge success, if only because of the friendships I’ve made in the last few months, which I already know will last a lifetime.

Kelly McVey

I’m like every other student on campus, except that every minute of the day there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind that threatens to taint my days at the school to which I worked so hard to gain admittance.

When I joined the National Guard a few years ago, partially to help pay for college tuition, but what I didn’t know at the time is that membership also meant that I was signing on to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, as a member of the Guard, I could be asked to deploy at anytime.

So while I’m sitting in class at the Dental School, training to be a dental hygienist, I know it might be only a matter of days until I find myself in Iraq.

Don’t get me wrong; I know what I signed up for and I’m proud to answer the many different calls of duty. But it makes my dreams of a degree more complicated and it makes my dreams of building a working marriage and a family seem like just that – dreams.

Most people I’ve talked to on campus don’t know much about the National Guard other than you get some money for college, but it is so much more than that. This is the first real chance in the last few years that I’ve had to go to school, even if it coincides with training.

One common misconception students seem to have is that I’m exempt from serving overseas because I’m enrolled in classes at the University. That’s not technically true. When I first joined back in 2002, part of my unit was deploying to Kuwait right before I left for my initial basic combat training. Several of my fellow soldiers were college students who had to drop classes and go halfway through their semester.

But there are other reasons my thoughts are lingering on Operation Iraqi Freedom. My husband is an active-duty Army soldier, and as I write this, he’s serving in Iraq on his third tour.

In military terms, we’re a “dual-military.” It’s stressful in the sense that we both can be called on to pack our bags and serve, but we might not go to the same place. Or, almost as difficult, I might be sent overseas when he finally comes home. In the National Guard, units deploying overseas typically serve for 15 months as well as an additional three months in-country, or state-side, preparing for the deployment. That amounts to roughly a year and a half away from civilian life at a time.

So while it would throw a wrench in my plans to get a degree, my greatest fear about being called to serve a tour in Iraq is that my husband and I wouldn’t be able to see each other for more than a year at a time. He’s been gone since February of this year. And if he makes a career out of the Army, or if I do, the military will do its best to make sure we see each other, but it won’t always be possible.

Some might call it a burden; others would call it a choice. But either way, answering the call of duty as a student, soldier and a wife is extremely hard. One thing I have really learned from all my experiences thus far is to be humble. It’s so easy to take the opportunities in this country, let alone on this campus, for granted. In the blink of an eye, everything can change.

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