Brian Schafer will graduate from Washington State University on Saturday, but he won't get to rest for long. Next month, he and fellow WSU student Isaiah Bryant will return for their second tours of duty in Iraq.
Schafer and Bryant are among 93 current WSU students who are Iraq war veterans. They agree that most students don't think about the fact that soldiers are in a war zone and that four WSU graduates have been killed in the war.
"People think they have life so tough here," Schafer said. "It's hard to get along with the student population."
Frank Boothby, veterans coordinator for the WSU Office of Veterans Affairs, said he's sometimes surprised when he talks to civilian students who come to his office doing research for a political science or comparative cultures class.
"They do tend to be relatively unaware of what's going on over there," he said. "It's probably youth. I'd hate to say ignorance, but a lack of hearing much in-depth about what's going on over there."
Schafer and Bryant recently took part in a campus discussion about the war in Iraq, with a goal of educating their fellow students about their experiences. Another WSU student, Dell Hogge, 59, also has spoken publicly about his experiences in the war-torn country, although his views contrasted with those of Schafer and Bryant.
Seeing it first-hand
Schafer, a 24-year-old psychology student from Auburn, Wash., is a corporal in the Marines for the Papa Battery, 5th Battalion of the 14th Marine Regiment from Spokane. The all-male regiment was providing security at the Al Asad air base in the Al Anbar province of Iraq between August 2004 and February 2005. They were stationed in northern Iraq, about 124 miles west of Baghdad.
"We were the quick-react force for the area, on a two-minute standby," Schafer said.
He and six other men were on two-day rotations that required being 12 hours "at the ready." They then had 12 hours of downtime, although they were on alert around the clock. They stayed in portable storage units and could be out the door in four minutes with all their gear.
"We would hear the explosions and we could deploy the whole platoon," Schafer said. "When we got in the vehicles, they'd tell us where we were going."
Everyone from Schafer's group returned home safely, although he remembers hearing a Humvee drive off a 30-foot cliff in the dark because it was driving with blackout lights. Schafer helped rescue the men, who were taken by MedEvac to Germany.
Schafer was in Iraq on Jan. 30, 2005, the day the Iraqi people voted for the first time since the current American occupation began.
"To see them with their purple fingers (indicating they had already cast a ballot) waving Iraqi flags and American flags at the same time - it was a great feeling," he said. "Now they could vote for whoever they wanted, not just Saddam Hussein. They were crying and to see them waving both the flags - it was wonderful."
A different take
Not everyone who has served in Iraq shares Schafer's sentiment. Hogge, a former National Guardsman, returned from Iraq in July 2003.
"The people who serve us are good people who went in for good reasons," Hogge said, explaining that most soldiers enter the service for the many benefits, both financial and educational, and to serve the country. They also join the military because it's a family tradition.
"They're wonderful people in a no-win situation," he said. "The day we arrived in Kuwait, (President) George Bush told us that the war was over. He said that all was left to do was to clean up and go home. As soon as I found out we weren't hauling in food to help people, but concertina wire and ammunition, I wanted out."
Hogge has read dozens of anti-war books and encourages people to read them, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
"We are a mercenary army in the employ of oil companies," he said, wearing a T-shirt with the words "REFUSE ILLEGAL WAR."
One of the four WSU graduates who have been killed was an ROTC cadet from Hogge's platoon, Jamie (Campbell) Krausse. The others were Brian Freeman, an undergraduate, and alumni Damien Ficek and James Schull. Ficek was from Palouse and graduated from Palouse High School.
"I'm not trying to talk anyone out of going. They're doing what they were trained to do," Hogge said. "I just think it's wrong. Jamie's life was lost in vain, so that Exxon could make $39 billion last year - and it really ticks me off."
Hogge is studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the hopes he can help other veterans who are returning from Iraq. He speaks openly in support of other soldiers - and against the war. He said he knew soldiers who had nervous breakdowns, becoming highly anxious and hitting the ground when a cloud of dust stirred.
"They thought it was nerve gas," Hogge said. "I'm invested. This is personal."
Schafer's degree also is in psychology. He has done two reports on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and said he may pursue a graduate degree to continue his studies in that area.
"There's guys who came back with us who we don't see much. I don't know if it's deployment depression or PTSD," he said.
To those who lobby against the war, Schafer's eyes twitch in a quick roll. He tells of an Army friend whose job is so classified that Schafer does not know what he does.
"He told me, 'If the American public knew half of what I know, they'd be glad we're over there,' " he said. "When you go, you put your opinions to the side and just go."
Bryant was in the infantry with the 792nd Chemical Company based in Yakima. He worked mainly with the military police, guarding prisoners.
"We're trying to win the hearts and minds of the people there. Nowhere in the history of civilization has the goal been to help people. We were there to help people," he said. "The Iraqi people are very supportive. There was huge resistance four years ago, but it's the insurgent groups that are causing the problems."
Bryant's contract is up in October and he intends to re-enlist for another three years.
"I love the uniform; I love serving. Even with some of the crappy stuff that happens, it's great. You make great friends and get opportunities you wouldn't get otherwise."
Schafer said he does not allow himself to think about the dangers.
"I just put it to the back of my mind. I never try to think about it much. You just deal with it when it comes, wake up the next morning and keep going."
Thursday, May 03, 2007
"Opposing viewpoints; WSU students who have served in Iraq have different opinions on war, reasons behind it"
Even though Amy Gray did not make it to the screening of "Outside the Wire" last month, I'm glad she did follow up with two of the vets that spoke that night in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News (although I wonder why she did not mention the event by name). These guys need to have their stories told, and thanks to the CRs, they have had that opportunity.