For Graduating Veterans, War a Momentous Classroom
Monday, May 23, 2005
The professor asked them all to give an impromptu speech on a life experience, and Daniel Wise listened, in agony, as five of his George Washington University classmates stood up one by one. The last one giggled through a speech about her summer job scooping ice cream. When it was his turn, he threw his shoulders back, stared straight ahead and, in his best hardened-soldier monotone, told them about fighting in Iraq for the U.S. Army.
Wise graduated from GWU this weekend, in a black cap and gown on the Mall. That ceremony didn't mean much to him: His real education came outside the classroom, in Humvees, tents and Iraqi villages.
"After going to war, everything else seems trivial," he said.
Like the World War II soldiers, sailors and Marines who came back to parades and the G.I. bill and the Vietnam veterans decades later who found protesters and divided campuses, a new generation is returning to college and finding that war changes everything.
For some, such as Conor Quinn of Rockville, the lesson learned in Iraq was simple: Go to college. His friends were going to frat parties, he said, while he was waiting for the next incoming mortar fire. He had always hated school, but war showed him what education could bring. He enrolled at Gettysburg College in January, a 23-year-old freshman, the oldest guy on the lacrosse team, the happiest one in the library. Now he looks back and sees an angry, lazy teenager completely changed by the Marines and Fallujah and feels grateful to be in college. "I never thought I'd be so interested in trying to learn, and find out new things."
For Matt Bulloch, who grew up in Timonium, Md., deployment taught him that reality doesn't always measure up to his ideals. He joined the National Guard for philosophical reasons: "John Stuart Mill said, 'War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is worse,' " he said.
Bulloch left the University of Virginia believing in the citizen-soldier and feeling the burden of fighting has always fallen too heavily on the country's most disadvantaged people.
In the Army, his commanders didn't appreciate all his philosophy; Bulloch spent days filling sandbags as punishment for asking too many questions. He didn't go into combat, but at Guantanamo Bay he got a close-up view of another side of the war. "As a human being, it's hard to see people in cages," he said of the detention center.
He came back to U-Va., from which he was graduated yesterday, with a deep appreciation for college life. "Three days earlier, I had to carry a rifle everywhere I went," he said. Campus "looked so green. . . . And all the girls were gorgeous." He loved that everyone was learning and questioning things and that if he and his friends felt like taking an inflatable raft and a case of beer out to a pond on campus, that's exactly how they'd spend the afternoon.
For Wise, the war redefined what education meant.
He grew up in Marblehead, Mass., an oceanfront town near Boston with big Colonial houses and sailboats, and like most of his classmates, he always knew he'd go to college.
But the day after his high school graduation in 2000, he left for a summer of basic training at Fort Knox, not only signing up for Army ROTC in college but enlisting in the reserve.