Student veteran talks about Iraq experiences and how it’s not all bad

Simon Yohannes said he would do his Iraq experience all over again if he had to.

Courtney Sinner

Amid media reports of rapidly climbing death counts, one student veteran wants to highlight his experience in Iraq and let people know that it’s not always as bad as it might seem.

“Would I do it again? Yes,” Simon Yohannes said in a talk to Black Student Union students on Friday afternoon.

After his first year at the University, the business and marketing student took some time off and needed a way to pay his tuition bills. He turned to the National Guard.

Enlisting in the summer of 2006, Yohannes underwent nine weeks of basic training and nine weeks of advanced training in South Carolina. Afterward, Yohannes returned to Minnesota for two weeks before finding out he was being deployed to Iraq.

As a private first class, Yohannes completed three more months of training in Wisconsin and flew to Iraq in July. He just returned in March.

“Basically, I wanted to clear up some misconceptions about the Army and enlighten the fact that you can have a good experience,” Yohannes said. “The last year and a half has given me a whole new perspective.”

Yohannes stressed that he was treated well, with plenty of room to sleep and three meals a day, often including items like lobster or steak.

He mainly stayed on base in Iraq, serving a “support role,” and worked with computers. Yohannes said he was rarely put in dangerous situations.

“I can’t say all of Iraq is like that, because it’s not,” he said. “I had my own room with one other guy and ate steaks every week, but some guys sleep in tents.”

Maj. Douglas Leonard, an assistant professor of military science for University ROTC, said Yohannes isn’t the only soldier happy with their time spent in Iraq.

“There’s a wide variety. It’s a lot of personal opinion,” Leonard said. “If you asked 100 soldiers, I think you’d find a large number willing to go back.”

Leonard said it’s “about half-and-half” of all soldiers that stay on base versus off base.

“At this point, those bases are like small towns, so we need people to stay and help run it,” Leonard said.

Yohannes said he felt safe on base but that he wouldn’t go walking around outside base.

“On base, it’s fine. It’s just like driving on campus,” he said. “Outside the wire, you could get a bomb anywhere.”

To date, there have been 4,051 American deaths in Iraq as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Yohannes remembered one time when his line of trucks was on its way back to base and shots were fired in their direction.

“They were probably a ways back, but they sounded close,” he said. “It was like someone dropped a cherry bomb right in front of you.”

Since his return, Yohannes said the National Guard has kept tabs on him, making sure he’s scheduling the appropriate medical appointments and adjusting to civilian life.

He said he’s scheduled to start receiving his veteran benefits in a couple months.

Marketing and entrepreneurial management sophomore and event attendee John Hardy said he was surprised to hear that Yohannes had such a positive experience.

“It was a big eye-opener,” Hardy said. “Many people have relatives over there, so on some level it’s comforting just to hear they’re getting treated well.”

Kwame Anderson, an international business sophomore, said the negative media image is “the only mindset we have” and enjoyed hearing a different side of the story.

“I love the fact that someone can come back from Iraq and talk about it without being depressed, stressed or emotional,” Anderson said.

Overall, Yohannes said his experience was positive because of the people he met and the mental strength he gained, in addition to the educational benefits to help him pay for school.

“If you’re not mentally strong, you won’t succeed at anything in life, and the Army teaches you that,” Yohannes said. “You’ve got to go out and get it.”