For Graduating Veterans, War a Momentous Classroom
Military Experience Colors Views of College's Significance

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

It wasn't the push-ups, the yelling, the sweating that shocked him -- it was the other recruits, from such places as Oklahoma. He was freaked out by them, and they were freaked out by him. Most of them had never met a Jewish guy before, he said. They couldn't believe he was going to college -- and that his parents were paying for it.

He got more care packages than anyone there, and one day -- when five arrived -- his drill sergeant decided things had gotten a little too cushy for Wise. The old rule was that any package had to have enough to share with everyone.

The drill sergeant's new rule: no sharing. He made Wise eat everything.

Wise started throwing up after the first box, the one with 63 bags of chips and Doritos, long, long before his grandmother's box of 63 pieces of homemade fudge.

Yet he liked learning to be a grunt. "It was an eye-opener, because -- wow -- not everyone lives the way I do. I realized how lucky I was." He laughed. "It was fun as hell."

Nine weeks later, he was unpacking his things in a freshman dorm at GWU, with his roommates staring at his buzz cut.

He majored in business, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he figured it was just a matter of time until he was called up. So as his friends were going to study in Florence, London and Barcelona in January 2003, he got called to Fort Bragg to get his desert gear and write a will.

On his 21st birthday, the United States went to war in Iraq.

His convoy rumbled over the Kuwait border into Iraq under an oil fire shooting bright orange flames high into the air, the heat so intense the soldiers couldn't touch the windshield. They passed burned-out vehicles and heard live artillery flying overhead.

That night, Wise and his commander talked about how privileged they were to be there. "While other people are on the couch watching this on TV, we're making it happen."

His psychological operations team would go in before anyone else, rolling through towns blaring messages through loudspeakers on their Humvee, trying to get fighters to surrender and families to leave before troops came in, with children running alongside and women hiding and his team watching for men with guns.

One night he awoke to soldiers yelling, "Get the snipers! Get the snipers!" and tracers shooting by in the night sky.

After months of rations, weather so hot that Coke cans exploded and little contact with home, coming back in the fall of 2003 to his old world brought reverse culture shock: Campus seemed small and sheltered and oblivious.

His stepmother said she knows there are things he can talk about only with his Army buddies. His college friends said he seemed more mature after he got back, more aware of how privileged they are, more open-minded about other parts of the world. He used to be shy, said Mike Solow, who knew Wise as a freshman. Now he's much more confident, maybe even cocky, and he carries himself like a soldier -- a 23-year-old senior with huge biceps and shoes he keeps shiny, Solow said.

Wise almost seemed indifferent about college after he came back, his friend Gaby Machabanski said. Not that he wasn't intellectual -- he seemed more so -- and not that he didn't know the value of a degree. But lectures and homework seemed insignificant because his view of the world had gotten so much larger. "He was looking beyond school," Machabanski said.

His commissioning this week is his real graduation, Wise said. He'll be a 2nd lieutenant, with a few months of training ahead, then a platoon of soldiers to lead into combat.

He held his Army uniform, with the patch on the chest that says "Wise" and said, "My job will be to get them to Iraq and bring them back alive. I feel ready."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company