Indiana Daily Student | Nov. 12, 2012
Photos by Anna Teeter
Photos by Anna Teeter
A different kind of battle
On a campus where wars overseas go unnoticed, student veterans face a new set of challenges
The staff sergeant sits, like always, with his back to the wall. Second chair from the door.
Since he returned from Baghdad, he needs to have the entrances and exits always in sight. Ready for anything.
The slides projected on the Ballantine Hall classroom wall switch every time his introductory Spanish class lazily answers the professor’s question. Freshman Adam Argenti knows every answer almost every time, but he rarely participates unless called upon.
“Name the month each symbol represents,” the professor says. “In español, please.”
A decorated evergreen tree appears on the screen.
“Diciembre,” the class answers.
An American flag with a cross.
Memorial Day, Adam thinks to himself. May.
“Anybody?” the professor asks.
Memorial Day, Adam says, but only in his mind.
The professor reaches for his clicker.
Adam leans back in his chair, closes his eyes and waits for patience. After everything he’s been through, he can’t help but find it hard to believe that so few people would ever know what it means to have gone to war.
* * *
Adam is a veteran. He served seven years in the Army and two deployments in Iraq. He’s also a 25-year-old freshman in his first semester of college at IU.
Like many who have served in the military, Adam’s adult life is a series of places. Ohio, Kansas, Hawaii, Iraq, Hawaii, Iraq, Hawaii, Bloomington.
He and the soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion were some of the last men and women in Iraq before the war officially ended in December 2011.
When the U.S. began to withdraw its troops from Iraq, thousands of American soldiers left the military. These men and women, veterans, live in every corner of America, trying to figure out what comes next.
For Adam, and the more than 275 other veterans at IU, what came next was college.
IU is no stranger to veterans. David Maxwell, who wrote IU’s existence into the state constitution, was a veteran of the War of 1812. The IU Archives are full of photos of training barracks in Bloomington and World War and Vietnam veterans returning home. Memorial Hall and the Indiana Memorial Union were built in their honor.
But when those men went to combat in Europe and the Pacific, the country they left behind still felt like a country at war.
Almost 9 percent of the total U.S. population was in the armed forces during WWII. The percentage of men and women who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq combined? 0.45.
Today, our wars are invisible on the home front.
Veterans come home to a country and a campus that doesn’t know them. They walk among 18-25 year olds who have spent up to half of their lives living in a country at war without ever truly being affected by it.
It’s not that students don’t care. It’s just that they don’t have to.
As an Army intelligence analyst, Adam is extremely qualified to be a criminal justice major at IU. After his release from active duty in March, he left Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and moved to Bloomington to be with his wife, Lindsy.
They bought a house on the south side of town, adopted a puppy named Lily and signed Adam up to receive his veterans benefits.
Finally, they were together, and Adam was safe.
But they both knew that Adam was about to wage a new kind of battle.
“If you don’t want to do this, I don’t want you living a life you hate,” Lindsy told him the night before he went to orientation. Adam told her he would be fine. But the very next day, he was ready to quit.
At orientation, Adam found himself sitting in front of a four-page test. Math placement. Students around him started furiously scribbling. He looked down at his test, and looked up at them.
I. Am. Ancient, he thought to himself.
His bulging arms and full beard gave away that he was not even close to the post-pubescent age of those in the desks around him.
He refocused on the test. “Graph this equation. Y=2X+5.” His mind stayed blank.
Confidential intelligence operations? No problem. Algebra? He hadn’t seen that kind of thing in seven years.
He filled in six of the 25 answers and walked out.
In August, those scrawny kids sitting next to him were now his peers and his classmates. Adam thought the only option was to show up early, be prepared for class and respect his professors. The 18-year-olds surrounding him had other ideas.
“Oh man, I was so hammered last night,” a kid in his Spanish class told him. “Barely made it in this morning, man.”
“If I don’t get into this sorority, I will die,” he overheard in his criminal justice class.
Many days, he finds himself venting to his wife.
Lindsy, an IU graduate herself, reminds him there’s nothing wrong with students acting that way.
“Babe, you have to understand,” she tells him. “Unless they’re going to their poli-sci class, they don’t really know what’s going on. They’re not getting declassified briefings of the terrible things that somebody did to somebody else.”
Adam’s challenges don’t come from outside forces alone. The results of experiencing war don’t just leave a soldier when his boots hit American soil.
Before he deployed, Adam told himself he wouldn’t get post-traumatic stress disorder or “go crazy.” He would always be able to separate what happens down range and what happens at home.
Today he knows better.
“It’s weird. I try and tell myself, we’re not over there, we’re here,” Adam says. “But then you have like what happened at the Colorado movie theater. It’s not terrorists, but still, shit like that happens.”
So now, the compulsions he is left with follow him everywhere.
To restaurants, where he must sit with his back to the wall.
To the mall, where crowds shake him far out of his comfort zone.
To his weekends at drill, where every month his Army Reserves obligations pull him back into the military lifestyle.
To his kitchen, where he needs every dish to be perfectly clean.
To his bed, now that he can sleep again.
* * *
In the last four years, the number of people receiving veterans benefits at IU has doubled.
More men and women are coming home, and because of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, they’re receiving more money than ever to pursue education.
Although their financial burden is lighter, they are not without baggage.
As soldiers, the war and military was priority number one. In college, they are expected to shed that history, learn to be their own bosses and make friends with peers who are often far less mature in age and life experience.
Margaret Baechtold, director of Veterans Support Services and an Air Force veteran, said for some, the struggles are even more serious.
“There are students with post-traumatic stress, students with mild to severe traumatic brain injuries and students who have lived through horrific combat experiences,” Baechtold said. “And you wouldn’t know any of that if you just see them walking down the street.”
Some go to therapy. Others keep it inside. Some are used to discipline, so they have no problem completing schoolwork. Others are lost without being told what to do and when to do it.
“You can’t just stamp a big V on their foreheads and say ‘Oh I know how to treat you,’” Baechtold said. “There’s no set list of problems veterans have. Every one of them is different. We just have to find ways to help.”
* * *
Adam and his friend Justin Butt joined the army during his senior year of high school in Canton, Ohio. Another friend who grew up a block away from Adam, Heath Warner, entered the Marines.
By 2006, Adam was at his first duty station in Kansas. That same year, Heath deployed to Iraq.
Adam was visiting his family in Canton for Thanksgiving when he received the call. Heath was in a vehicle that had been hit by a roadside bomb. He died.
He was 19 years old.
“It was fucked up,” Adam says. “I was not happy. I cried. I don’t know why but it made me want to go over more. ”
Adam went back to Kansas and volunteered to be deployed. There were no openings. He tried to switch brigades, but his sergeant major wouldn’t give him up.
Eventually, he skipped the chain of command and found an opening in Hawaii. To make the jump, he was told he had to extend his service for one year. He didn’t care. He just wanted to go.
Adam spent 12 months in Northern Iraq. He returned home, spent a year in Hawaii and married Lindsy. In November 2010, he deployed again for another year. This time, to Baghdad.
Most of Adam’s days and many of his nights were spent working on intelligence operations in a tactical operations center. Analyzing video feeds, giving reports, investigating potential threats — his work was complicated and taxing.
Sometimes, what he saw was basic. A raiding of a house or a transport of an important official. But often, he witnessed scenes that can’t be forgotten. IED explosions. The bloodied remains of suicide bombers. A beheading.
He tried not to let it bother him. His job was his job, and it had to be done right.
And at least he had his soldiers. That part he loved.
By his second deployment, he had worked his way up to staff sergeant, and he treated his guys like family. He made sure to figure out what type of leadership each one responded to best and tried to accommodate all of them.
But Adam knew he was getting ready to leave the Army. He wanted a family, he missed Lindsy and he was sick of all the bureaucracy.
“I came home at the end of the day very angry more often than not,” Adam said.
His qualifications as a sergeant and experience in intelligence work qualified him to go straight into an “alphabet agency” like the CIA or FBI. But Lindsy and his mom encouraged Adam to think about college. Lindsy had been joking with him for years that she was going to make him a Hoosier someday.
But could he handle it?
* * *
Before the influx of veterans at IU, the University’s support system for those who had served was an office in the basement of Franklin Hall. With only one full-time employee, it shared space and staff with the Disabilities Services office.
John Summerlot, director of Read Center, said when he began working at IU in 2004, the lack of veteran visibility contributed to lack of consideration on campus.
Professors were not trained on how to help veterans deal with the unique challenges they face. If student soldiers in the National Guard or the Reserves were called up for duty, there was no set structure for how to help them save their credits.
But as the Iraq war started to wind down and the new GI bill took effect, officials like Summerlot and Dean of Students Harold “Pete” Goldsmith decided it was time for a change. Goldsmith served in Vietnam after completing Army ROTC at IU.
“It’s our job to help students with particular needs,” he said. “And it’s the right thing to do. We’ve asked [veterans], in some cases, to go overseas three or four times. We need to help them be successful when they return.”
Veterans Support Services was given more staff and a spacious office in the IMU. It now sponsors math tutoring, group dinners and an eight-week adjustment class for first-year veterans. Inside the office, there’s a lounge for student veterans to use any time they want to get away or just talk with other veterans.
This year, a group of students has even started an organization for veterans to hang out outside of school. The group has become a chapter of the Student Veterans of America.
While support for veterans on campus has increased, it is often met with resistance by many veterans who are hesitant to be categorized in a military group again. Especially once they are out for good.
Like Adam, they’re trying to move on.
* * *
Adam has barely said a word about his service to anyone on campus, but he figures that this time is no big deal.
A freshman sitting next to him in his criminal justice lecture has just asked him why he was so old for a freshman.
So he says it.
“I was in the Army.”
He has barely gotten the sentence out of his mouth when the freshman responds.
“Oh cool. Did you kill people?”
The ultimate question, the one no veteran ever wants to be asked. Adam hasn’t shown or talked about his Army affiliation much since.
Other than his tattoos and his veteran license plates, Adam rarely shows his military background. He doesn’t carry an Army-issued camouflage backpack or wear an Army T-shirt. He only shows his military ID if he’s trying to get out of a speeding ticket, and he wouldn’t dream of wearing his uniform other than when he’s on duty.
He’s not embarrassed, he just doesn’t want to advertise.
Just like with his Spanish professor, Adam understands he can’t expect the average person to be as military-conscious as he is.
And he knows he is hyper-aware. As Adam walks from class to class, he drowns out every noise with alternative rock pumping through his headphones. Adam’s eyes, though, are always moving. Every once in a while, they glimpse a fragment of his former life.
Combat boots on a guy wearing jeans. A National Guard patch on a girl’s backpack. Sometimes, they don’t have to be wearing anything — the posture, the walk, the build — he can pick a soldier out of any crowd.
To anyone else, these signs blend in. To Adam, they’re a beacon of his past, shining out in his new present.
* * *
On a Thursday night in early November, Adam sat at his dark wooden kitchen table working on his laptop and watching Lindsy cook mashed potatoes on the stove.
“My brother texted me today,” Lindsy says to him as she stirs. “He seems to think that the tax credit for buying a new house still works. We’re getting our taxes professionally done this year, right?”
“Yeah,” Adam responds. “We can’t do it at the base anymore. That reminds me, I need to take my helmet to Sergeant V.”
At home, he doesn’t have to sit with his back to the wall.
But his focus is still on what’s in front of him: letting go of army life, finishing school, getting a job, becoming a dad and being the kind of person he can be proud of.
It may be a different kind of battle, but it’s one he’s ready to conquer.