ROCK ISLAND — Combat veterans fresh out of the "sandbox" may struggle to adapt to their new lives in academia, two graduating veterans told an Augustana College audience on Wednesday.|
Josh Brown and J.D. Engelhardt, both U.S. Army veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, started the Augustana Veterans Support Group to cope with their new lives. They saluted the veterans of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign conflicts Wednesday during "An Evening of Remembrance" at Augustana.
The two spoke about their own experiences in combat and the close bonds they forged with members of their units.
"To understand what a veteran is you have to understand how you become a veteran," Mr. Engelhardt said.
The Des Moines native said his decision to join the military was not universally popular among friends and teachers. He saw the military as a way to get into Augustana and as a potential career. He said he quickly learned that every soldier had his or her own reason for joining.
"What mattered was the unit," he said, likening it to a family.
After being deployed in Iraq, Mr. Engelhardt said he thought of himself as "already dead" and assigned himself the duty of saving as many of his brothers as he could in combat. When the chaos was over and he returned to his home, he knew the experience had changed him.
"We come home and try to be the same person," Mr. Engelhardt said. "Four years have changed us. We're no longer that person."
Veterans — no longer civilians or in the military — often feel lost without their "family," or those with whom they have shared the experience of combat, he said.
Those who go to college may feel a further disconnect, he said, sharing classes with students several years their junior. He also said he felt professors held him to higher expectations.
He and Mr. Brown began meeting daily to catch up and vent about their difficulties in adapting to college life.
On Wednesday, Mr. Brown shared many of those challenges. He started college six months after leaving what he called "the sandbox." He said the psychological effects of war and "coming to terms with your mortality" made it difficult to relate to other students.
After forming the Veterans Support Group, the two men connected with other veterans, both students and nonstudents.
Mr. Brown said he wishes the best for the support group, operating in his and Mr. Engelhardt's absence. He also urged Augustana's administration to create a resource center for veterans to encourage higher enrollment for those leaving combat.