Combat Veterans Confront Life on Campus

The lanky University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore was searching for the keg when another partygoer spotted him.

"Everybody, this is Jake Warner," he announced. "Jake was in the Marines and he's been to Iraq," he continued, his voice rising.

Oh shit, here it comes; Warner groaned.

"He's killed people before!"

Warner's smile evaporated. "Thanks," he grumbled. "Thanks for that introduction." But the damage had been done. His camouflage of anonymity, of normalcy was gone—he could no longer pass as a physics geek. He was the killing machine. He was the Marine.

This wasn't exactly the picture of college life Warner had dreamed up—and for most war veterans, college never is. It's not that they face the rabidly anti-soldier environment that Vietnam veterans did, but the transition from soldier—or airman or sailor or Marine—to student can be a strange and lonely trip any way you cut it. While some veterans want people to buy them beer and thank them for their great service to the country, most just want to feel normal. College is a chance for them to start over, to start fresh—but putting the war behind them is a complicated process, and leaving the military is just the start.

After years of being plugged into the military machine, they arrive at the la-la land that is the American university system, feeling like aliens from another planet. In one sense, it's the ultimate vacation—no drug tests, no ambushes, no prohibitions on porn—no rules. But at the same time, emotional solitude can make it overwhelmingly lonely. No one is there to watch their backs. There is no ready-made family willing to take a bullet on their behalf. Their fellow students will have much to say about foreign policy but little understanding of war itself. Politics? Their friends died; they risked their lives because of politics. But sometimes it's not even that, sometimes it's just that they're all grown-up, they're older and wiser and have seen more of the world. It all depends.

There is no organized tally of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans currently attending college, but the federal government—via the Veterans Administration—tracks the number of vets who use the GI Bill to pay for school, and according to VA spokesman Dennis Douglass, there were 420,000 students using the GI Bill in 2006. Of them, 85 percent used the money at two- or four-year colleges and about 4 percent went to graduate school. The rest did some sort of technical or non-academic training, like flight school. While no single experience encompasses this vast group, student veterans have one thing in common: as much as they worked as team in war, they go to college alone.

When Luke Stalcup was discharged in March 2004, his sister was in grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. Fresh from the insular world of the military, he tagged along with her to classes and started turning up at campus events. Two weeks after coming home, he stumbled onto a three-day conference at Berkeley's journalism school entitled "The Media at War: The U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Iraq." For a guy who'd spent the last fours years defusing roadside bombs for the Army, the tone was rattling. In one instance, he recalled a reporter telling the crowd about an American soldier that had forcefully shoved him away from the scene of a bombing in Iraq. As others listened on the edge of their seats, Luke slunk in his chair. He had earned two Bronze Stars in Iraq with additional "V's" for valor and thought of himself as one of the good guys. He sure as hell hadn't spent his time in Iraq shoving around reporters, he later explained, and he didn't like being equated with terrified grunts. "This is—to the people in this room—me," he said during an interview, throwing up his hands. "These journalists just [spoke] in this way that's like: 'The military is,' 'The soldiers are.'" Humiliated, he left. "It's like being in a room full of people who are all talking about you and they don't know that you're there," he said.

Of course, obscurity has its upsides. At the University of Texas at Austin, Starr Renee-Corbin—an Army Captain and Iraq veteran—claims to be something she never wanted to be: a campus celebrity. "In 2005, I started college and I had a very idealistic view of how it was going to be. I just thought that I would move on, that the Army was just a chapter in my life and my goal was to not let Iraq be this milestone in my life; I didn't want my life to be defined by 'Before Iraq' and 'After Iraq,' " she said. "One thing I wasn't really mentally prepared for was the protests, the outspoken criticism of the war, the soldiers... Really, it was just constantly in my face when all I really wanted to do was forget about it." And it wasn't even that she was against protesting so much as she hated the memories they triggered. In Iraq, she had dreamed so wistfully of civilian life, of Texas, that after so much remembering and wishful thinking, home stopped being associated with anything real. It became a symbol of innocence, the paradise where nothing had been touched by Iraq. "It's so child-like the way you think," she laughed, "but it's really true."

And when she did finally get back, a Master's program in Women's Studies at UT sounded like the perfect way to tune out and start over. But by the time she started school in the fall of 2005, there was no escaping it: Operation Iraqi Freedom was all over CNN and the op-ed pages of the Daily Texan.

Corbin had spent a year in Iraq. Six months into the deployment, she got plucked from her job as a communications planner inside Iraq's fortified Green Zone to assist the Commanding General of US forces in an area just outside of Baghdad. Desk jockey no more, she tried to ease into her role as combat chauffer. Ambushes and IED's were par for the course, and with them came funerals—lots of funerals.

Like many Iraq veterans, Corbin now feels torn about the war. Her initial visions of spreading freedom and democracy turned to bitterness when her friends and fellow soldiers started dying. The Iraqis hate us, she often thought, we have no business here. She left Iraq firmly opposed to the war, but now that she's back in Texas, she can't bring herself to publicly speak out against the war. "I'm very proud of the anti-war movement because I want it to end and I hate it," she said angrily. "You know, the latest troop surge—I thought I was going to vomit." On this point, she paused. But with so many comrades—including her husband—still in Iraq, she explained, "there's a part of me that wants to believe that my family didn't sacrifice so much for nothing." Joining the protesters, she said, would feel like a betrayal of an institution she had so loved.

Iraq vets tend to wax nostalgic about the invasion—those good ole days when the U.S. was spreading freedom, hunting Saddam and building a democracy. Stalcup, the bomb squad sergeant, got out of the Army in early 2004, and he is no exception to the rule. His war—his Iraq—was a good war, a good fight. His job, he explained, was to save people, not kill them.
He reminisced about his first Bronze Star during the battle of Najaf. He had been sitting in a convoy when the truck in front of him exploded. The caravan stopped as dozens of soldiers stepped out of their vehicles. Luke hollered at them, "Nobody move! We're in a minefield." The soldiers froze. Luke and another member of the bomb squad lowered themselves gently onto the ground belly-first and began poking through the sand with car antenna-like titanium probes. Every few minutes they would find a mine and pull it up by hand. After several hours, they managed to clear a path out of the minefield.

But when Stalcup applied to UC Berkeley, he says the veterans liaison at the admissions office told him that as a far as the admissions process was concerned, it would have been better if he'd been the president of his high school chess club than have been in the military.

Stalcup was flabbergasted. "I came back thinking 'Holy Crap, I'm a veteran and I have a really good military record,' so school's are just gonnna be like, 'Oh totally!'" he said. "They say, 'We'd like you to have world experience and to be international.' Hello! I'm super-international. I have tons of experience. That was really a hard blow for me.'"

He had wanted a hero's welcome; what he got was Berkeley, which did admit him. But even they are changing their tune, according to Director of Admissions Walter Robinson. Six months ago, the University of California Regents [board] approved a Memorandum of Understanding to "place a high premium on military veterans" in the admissions process. In January, Berkeley even started a Committee on Veterans Affairs to help university administrators wrap their brains around the student-veteran experience. "I think people are a little more sensitive to the soldiers now" than in the Vietnam era, said Robinson. But, he acknowledged, there is still much room for improvement. "We can't treat them like we invited a bunch of vegetarians to a barbeque and act like 'we have nothing for you'...It's a form of cultural competency. If you're not familiar with their culture, it's not going to go well."

Of course, these realizations came too late for Stalcup, who enrolled in the spring of 2005 and stayed through the summer. He says he felt like a pariah. Professors in some classes openly disparaged the military during lectures, he said. "'People in the military are all, you know, dumbasses,'" he parodied, "'and they're in the military because they couldn't do anything else.' " His frustration rose. "That's really not good," he stammered.

His revenge, he decided, would be to get good grades, and that meant holding back his desire to challenge the offending professors in class. As he put it, "That's not a goal which is accomplished by getting a 'C' in Peace and Conflict Studies or something like that where you know you're going to go to a class where the professor is going to saying all this stuff and at one point you're not gonna be able to take it anymore and you're just gonna be, like, 'You're totally full of shit. You don't know what you're talking about—you've been at a university for the last 35 years. You've never done anything in your life but talk about other people doing things.' And the professor's going to be like, 'Oh, well, obviously we have some sort of Republican agent here, and so I'm gonna really stick it to him.'"

Whether this was true or not, or not, cautioned Robinson, was not the point. "A military vet coming straight out of a conflict zone is going to feel really odd anywhere in society. It's not just on college campuses, it's anywhere."

After a bruising eight months at Berkeley, Stalcup transferred into the School of General Studies at Columbia University in the fall of 2005. The program—one of Columbia's three undergraduate schools—had a long history of accommodating veterans. Founded in 1947, the school was designed specifically to absorb returning GI's who didn't fit Columbia's traditional undergraduate mold. On the famously liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan, Stalcup found the veteran community he had been craving. After a year, he became president of Columbia's 90-member-strong veterans club, the MilVets. It's been a fun, but far from perfect, match.

"The main difference between me and the administration," explained Stalcup, "is that they want Columbia to appear more veteran-friendly, and I actually want it to be that way."

A nagging bone of contention has been the International Socialist Organization. From time to time, they set up shop in the center of campus and pass out copies of The Socialist Worker, which argues against American imperialism abroad. In one well-publicized incident, Matt Sanchez, a Marine Reservist and frequent Fox News guest, complained to Columbia's administration that members of the group had harassed him at a military recruiting event in fall 2005 and told him that the military "uses minorities as cannon fodder," and then followed with, "You're too stupid to understand that you're being exploited by the military." A year and a half later, in January 2007, he appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" and re-hashed the same charges, complaining that the administration had turned a deaf ear to him. ISO members have denied his claims, calling the whole situation a case of organized public slander. According to a Columbia spokesman, the university has taken his complaint seriously and responded "by following the established disciplinary processes." The university can't discuss the details because of federal privacy laws.

Problems from outside the classroom have snuck into the lecture halls too. As Stalcup explained, "I still spend a lot of time being really careful about what classes I take and what professors I take classes with. Is this professor going to be somebody who's going to find out I'm in the military and ride me for the rest of the semester so that he can prove his own worldview to himself?" But even he acknowledges that it's not all black and white. Last semester he had a Shi'ism professor who had made it onto several online "uber-liberal, anti-military watch lists," but turned out to be a very respectful, down-to-earth guy. At the end of the day, Stalcup admits that for all its faults, he loves Columbia. "It's a great school," he said.

As alienating as it might be, the post-war homecoming for today's veterans is a far cry from what their Vietnam forebearers had to endure. As Warner explained—and this sentiment was echoed by everyone interviewed for this story—"I'd say over 90 percent of [the students] are very respectful." His biggest complaint was with a deleted-then-revived-again Facebook group entitled, "F**k the Troops." But more recent Facebook searches reveal many more groups with names like, "Anyone who says 'F**k the Troops' is a COMMIE bastard!!!" and "F**k the troops!...they're horny and they need something to screw!" than those with genuinely anti-military agendas. The real problem isn't persecution; it's loneliness. When you've invaded Iraq and hunted Al-Qaeda in the Afghan Himalayas and now you're a college student, it's hard not to feel like—and be seen as—a monkey in the zoo.

"I don't think I've ever been introduced as a Marine at Madison at a party," Warner admitted, "without someone inappropriately asking, 'Hey, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but I'm really curious: Have you killed someone?' " He has, in fact. During the assault on Nasiriyah, Warner and fifteen other Marines were chest-deep in a latrine when a car stuffed with armed Iraqis came speeding at them. Jake raised his rifle and took aim. "I didn't think about 'I'm taking a life here,' or anything like that," Warner chuckled. "It was more like, 'OK, 300 down range, so I gotta range up 3 inches; winds off to my left, you know, so I gotta go right a half inch for every hundred yards…'" He paused for second. "I took the shot," he volunteered, sounding matter-of-fact. "It hit the driver, they swerved off the side of the bridge. That's what happened."

As a young Marine, he had looked forward to this moment as a right of passage. "As much as some people won't want to admit it," he explained, "they'll respect someone more who's killed someone in combat…It gives them a more powerful, mysterious aura."

But that was the Marines. College is different. A different "mysterious aura" surrounds him at Madison. The other students at Madison might ask, but they don't understand. As he put it, "they don't actually want to know what happens over there." They've never been Marines—or anything close—so it's even hard for them to understand the mindset of where he comes from, of where this kind of thing is normal. He sighed, "it gets old real quick, let me tell ya."

Drinking, he confessed, makes it worse. "I'll be at a party or a bar or something. I won't have any Marines or anybody that went to Iraq or Afghanistan with me. I'll want to call one of my buddies and talk to them, you know, not even about the war, but just to bullshit with them. Just someone I can relate with," he explained. "And I've got nothing. I've partied before and I'm just like 'I'm not feeling this right now' and I'll just head back and go to sleep because I don't want to get in that real deep, depressive mood where no one can understand."

In a landmark study, two researchers studying combat stress during World War II concluded that after sixty days of continuous combat, 98 percent of soldiers ended up with severe psychological problems—the remaining 2 percent, they decided, had already possessed "aggressive psychopathic personalities." Jon "Johnny" Kuskie is one of the former. At the ripe age of 22, he'd already completed three tours in Iraq. First the invasion, then the assault on Fallujah, then a back and forth between Fallujah and Ramadi. He was a machine gunner, and unlike Warner who recalled instantly the fire fight in Nasiriyah, Kuskie's had so many kills that he had to ponder the question for a while before he could recollect his first one.

In his last deployment to the Fallujah-Ramadi area, he saw so much combat that one out of every five Marines in his platoon was killed in action—that's eight guys. He is fine, he insists, but every now and then, he wakes up screaming. But really, he's OK with it, honest. "Every time we lost a guy, we felt like we needed to get a kill," he explained. "I guess everyone handles it differently, but the big majority of the guys in my unit were just all about payback."

Kuskie is now an Agricultural Business major at Chadron State College in northwest Nebraska. But in his head, he is still over in Iraq. He is still in it. He is still a Marine. With one finger always on the trigger, he learned to shut himself off, to dial down his humanity, and 24 months in Iraq had ingrained the pattern deep into his psyche. "I didn't learn a ton of handy job skills," he confessed. "I ran around with a machine gun."

Last semester, the whole screaming thing scared off his girlfriend. But over the phone, Kuskie sounded an upbeat note. "I go to school on the GI Bill," he said. "It's a great deal. I get a check and it covers my tuition and my living expenses... I don't have a job… I don't do anything but go to school."

For college administrators, the issues veterans bring with them to campus can be overwhelming. "Some vets have a lot of resentment, some are trying to struggle with the violence they witnessed," explained Lori Berquam, the dean of students at UW-Madison. "I don't know what burden they're carrying, what life they've lived. Here's a 19-year-old person who truly had to witness some horrific things. I will never ever be able to understand that."

At UT, Corbin tries to keep her burden private. "When I came home, I was just in shock," she said, sputtering. In November 2005—just a few months after coming home to Texas—her husband got called back into active duty from the reserves. In April 2006, he was sent to Iraq. She worried constantly, especially after he appeared in a homemade insurgent video on CNN. The video showed him standing in the street as a sniper shot and wounded the man next to him. Corbin is still home alone with their three-year-old son, counting down the days until his return.

Not that long ago, she was making copies in the UT women's studies department when a student approached her. The girl, around 19 herself, wanted to know about Iraq. "Did you see a lot of death?'" the student asked. Corbin was floored. "I saw dead bodies on the road, in pictures, it was all over," she explained, pausing for a moment as she recalled the scene. "I said, 'Well, it's everywhere.' I did not know how to answer that, and that just sort of crystallized the college experience for me as a veteran on campus…It was definitely an intense need to know, but just not being aware of what's appropriate to ask at a copy machine."