From combat to the classroom

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series about the Iraq War. Tomorrow’s article will deal with student reaction to the war.

Cati Vanden Breul

F for most University students, the footage of tanks rolling through the desert in Iraq and the death tolls in newspapers are distant reminders that the United States is at war.

The casualty counts: just numbers. The disturbing images: something to which Americans have become desensitized.

But for others, the war is all too real.

Many veterans find it difficult to transition from a combat zone back to the classroom.

After spending months in battle, watching fellow soldiers get injured or killed, studying just doesn’t seem as important, some veterans say.

The number of Iraq War veterans on campus is unknown.

Although the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are 454 veterans at the University, this figure includes only those who receive federal education benefits and some who have never served in combat.

But for those who are here, the war is much more than a collection of images on a TV screen – it is something that defines who they are.

Coping with loss

If Staff Sgt. Jeremy Martinez had a choice between hitting the books in Minnesota and patrolling through the desert in Iraq, he would be on a plane to the Middle East in a heartbeat.

But, before Martinez can fulfill his dream of becoming an officer in the Marine Corps, he has to get a college degree. That’s why he’s at the University.

The 29-year-old political science sophomore enlisted in the Marines in 1996 and has already served two tours of duty in Iraq – the first during the initial invasion and the second beginning in January 2004.

Martinez’s second tour was cut short just four months into his deployment, when he was accepted into a Marine Corps officer program. Shortly after, the Moorhead, Minn., native enrolled at the University.

“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, is leave my Marines in Iraq,” Martinez said.

Over the past decade, the staff sergeant has extensively traveled the world, serving in Cuba, Albania, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Djibouti. But he said his deployment to Iraq was his “first experience with complete chaos.”

On his first tour, beginning in February 2003, Martinez led a group of 21 Marines in a mission to secure the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

“It’s almost like you see in the movies,” he said, recalling one of the first times his battalion came under fire.

“There was all this fire going on and the Marines were diving to the ground, not knowing if the explosions were coming towards them or were outgoing. I was up barking orders, and they were all looking at me like I was crazy for standing up, but I hadn’t even stopped to think. My first priority was to get my Marines where they needed to go, not to take cover.”

Martinez said he feared more for his fellow Marines’ safety then his own.

“I felt like I had done what I wanted to do in life, but some of these kids are 18, just out of high school,” said Martinez, who was 25 at the time. “Keeping them safe was the most important thing to me.”

His unit suffered no casualties during his first deployment. But on Martinez’s second tour, not everyone survived.

Just a day after returning to the United States, Martinez learned that two of the Marines in his company had been killed in an attack.

“To this day, I believe that those Marines would not have died if I’d been there,” he said.

Martinez drove from North Carolina to Connecticut to attend one of the fallen Marines’ funerals, wondering the entire time what the young man’s parents would say to him.

At a farewell party Martinez hosted before his unit left for Iraq, attended by the families of his fellow Marines, the mother of the Marine who died asked Martinez to make sure her son made it home safe.

“I promised her I’d bring her son back,” he said.

At the funeral, the same mother pulled him aside to ask if he had been there when her son was killed.

“I told her I wasn’t,” he said. “She looked at me and said, ‘I knew you wouldn’t have let me down on your promise. If you were there, you would have done everything you could.’

“I needed to hear that more than anything.”

Losing a fellow Marine in combat can make you question everything, Martinez said.

“First, you get mad at the Marine Corps, then you get mad at yourself, then at the government,” he said. “But then you begin to rationalize and justify the things that happen. My Marines went on a mission to get 20 high-value targets, and they got 20 high-value targets.”

But the pain of losing someone you’ve trained for battle lasts forever. Just ask Martinez.

“They say time heals, and maybe time will scab it over, but it’s always something that is fresh in the back of my head.”

War strains relationships

Kinesiology senior Brandon Schomberg was working at the University Recreation Center on Sept. 11, 2001. As he watched the World Trade Center towers crumble, he knew his life was going to change.

When Schomberg, now 24, joined the military in February 2000, he never imagined he would one day see combat.

“When I joined, you never thought about war or actually going, but when 9/11 happened, we all started talking about war and I started wondering if I was ever going to have to go,” Schomberg said.

Enlisting in the army, as his father had, was something Schomberg looked forward to.

In early 2003, when Schomberg was studying for midterms, he got a call telling him to report for duty the next morning.

“It was a rollercoaster of emotions. We never got a heads up; we just got a call and had to go right away,” he said.

Schomberg spent most of his 16-month tour in Iraq transporting supplies from unit to unit. His mission, often a dangerous one, took him through most of the country.

“We’re driving in these one- to three-mile convoys, with 10 to 40 vehicles, so we’re an easy target for (insurgents) to set bombs,” he said.

Once every three or four missions, the convoys got hit by an IED, or improvised explosive device.

Although Schomberg avoided injury, he said he saw many soldiers rushed away in helicopters after getting injured by flying shrapnel.

“I was very lucky to always be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

The hardest thing for the student, beyond battling the intense heat without cold water or air-conditioning, was being away from his friends, family and girlfriend.

“When I first got over there, you had to wait hours in line just to talk to someone and you didn’t even know if you could get through on the phone,” Schomberg said, describing how he often waited in sandstorms to connect with loved ones.

The military extended Schomberg’s tour numerous times, so he never knew when he would get to come home – an uncertainty that strained his relationship with his girlfriend.

Eventually, they broke up.

“It was just too hard not being able to talk to that person everyday,” he said.

At one point, his unit was packed and ready to leave Iraq when a flurry of insurgent attacks prompted the military to extend its tour another three months.

“Our families knew we were coming home; all we were doing was waiting for our flights,” Schomberg said. “This was very tough on our morale.”

When he finally returned to campus in fall 2004, he got back into “school mode,” but said it was hard at first because most of his friends had graduated. He plans to attend graduate school at the University to study physical therapy.

In spite of the hardships of serving in Iraq, Schomberg said he is proud of what he has done and has no regrets.

“I wonder sometimes how my life would have been different, but God does everything for a reason.”

‘Being here is a lot harder than being out there’

One of Sgt. Jason Oldenkamp’s proudest moments in Iraq was watching citizens vote in their first democratic election.

Support for veterans

Comfort For Courage Veterans Transition Center
– Offers support for veterans on campus.
– Focuses on academic success, social networking, professional development and promoting positive relations between veterans, University faculty and students.
OFFICE: Eddy Hall 15
[email protected]

Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs
Regional higher education office provides information about veterans benefits and resources.
OFFICE: Fraser Hall 200
(612) 625-7620

Like Martinez, the 24-year-old applied economics sophomore is working toward a degree so he can become an officer in the Marines.

“Being here is a lot harder than being out there sometimes,” he said. “This is something I have to do to be where I want to be. But I would rather be in Iraq, to be where the Marines are.”

Oldenkamp joined the Marine Corps in 2001. Since the war began three-and-a-half years ago, he has been deployed to the Middle East twice. He said he was drawn to the Marines to “have a piece of the action.”

“I wanted to be somewhere making a difference and not just sitting around watching everyone else do it on TV,” he said.

Throughout both tours, Oldenkamp dealt mostly with the fiscal logistics of the war. On his first tour, he was based in Kuwait, where he regulated the Marines’ pay.

But his mission changed the second time around. From August 2004 to March 2005, Oldenkamp served in Iraq, where he worked on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

“We set up meetings with local sheiks and contractors and worked with engineers to help rebuild clinics, schools, roads, everything to try to make the communities better,” he said.

At the time, Oldenkamp said, the Iraqis were appreciative of the U.S. presence in the country.

But it was dangerous for them to show it.

“A lot of times the people we’d work with would get killed just for working with us,” Oldenkamp said.

An Iraqi contractor who frequently visited with the Marines in Oldenkamp’s unit was decapitated by an insurgent, his corpse dropped in front of the military base.

“Because he was one of our friends, it was hard to take,” Oldenkamp said. “He was a great guy; he’d always bring nice, extravagant meals. He even came on Christmas Day to wish us a Merry Christmas, even though it wasn’t his holiday.”

Despite the negative reports coming out of Iraq, Oldenkamp said Americans need to realize the military is doing a lot of good for the Iraqi people.

“Unfortunately, the bad is all people see; no one reports the good things that happen over there.”

Lucky to be alive

Chemistry junior Jeremiah Peterson spent more than a year of his life in Baghdad, surrounded by the sights and sounds of death and destruction.

His job was to patrol one of the most dangerous stretches of Iraq – the road by the Baghdad International Airport. At the beginning of his tour, an average of eight people per day died in the neighborhoods surrounding “Airport Road,” said Peterson, 24.

“We were there to draw fire so (the insurgents) would attack soldiers instead of civilians,” he said.

Although he constantly saw Iraqi insurgents and civilians get killed or wounded, Peterson said he didn’t let fear get the best of him.

“You can’t be scared to do anything; you have to turn fear into confidence,” he said.

Peterson joined the army because it was the only way he could afford college.

“Before, I hadn’t really thought of combat, but war defines a person,” he said. “I’m happier in the army. If something happens, I want to know I can affect it.”

During his tour, Peterson said his unit helped bring the death toll on Airport Road from eight per day down to sometimes none.

“We did a lot of really good things there,” he said, recalling the time he spent with Iraqi kids and the soccer balls, shoes and candy the military regularly gave to children.

“We got to know some of the kids by name; it was really awesome,” Peterson said.

As a student veteran, Peterson said he understands how hard it is to leave a combat zone and go back to school and studying.

“I was doing all this physical activity every day; it’s hard to come back and sit in the library staring at a book for hours,” he said.

Organizations on campus, such as Comfort for Courage, offer support to war veterans trying to transition back to life in the United States. The group recently elected Peterson to serve as president.

“Going to school can be a larger stressor (than Iraq),” he said. “You really learn not to sweat the small stuff there.”