SCAN: Near normal

SCAN, the magazine of the College of St. Catherine

The landscape looks different, the colors more vibrant. The sense of personal space and freedom inspires both joy and fear. Student-veterans at St. Kate’s are strangers in a peaceful place. They have faced a whirlwind readjustment since their time at war. St. Catherine’s, with its supportive atmosphere, its moral leadership, its pretty campuses, has felt like a good place to get on with life.

Ian Wolfe
Portrait of Ian Wolfe by Bill Kelley
Nursing student Ian Wolfe. Inset: Wolfe holds an 18-month-old girl, who later died from her wounds suffered in an insurgent explosion in Iraq.

They called her Amira — princess. Or habibi, baby. Finally a man who said he was her father came to the U.S. military hospital at Balad and told them her name was Marwali. Eighteen months old, she had been blinded in an insurrectionist bombing. One eye was lost. The other had a detached retina that couldn’t be saved. Her right side bore fierce shrapnel wounds. Medics rigged a tube to drain a collapsed lung cavity, but the makeshift tube leaked, and the lung collapsed repeatedly. Minnesota Army National Guard Specialist Ian Wolfe worked day by day to keep her alive.

What happened to Marwali?

A shade of regret enters the voice of the otherwise businesslike St. Kate’s nursing major. “I heard she died,” he says. They come home strangers to what used to be familiar, trying to find their way through a life from which they’ve grown apart. Student-veterans find themselves surrounded by people whose experience is completely different — people with whom they now must relearn the basics of studying and working and living. How can veterans ever tell the stories of what they have seen and done? Of what they were trying to accomplish? Of what they feel inside?

Yet when veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do make it home, they arrive with new appreciation for life, family, friends and freedom. They bask in luxuries the rest of us take for granted. “Like a car,” says another St. Kate’s nursing major, Jacie Thiesse. “And a flush toilet. Having weather that’s not 130 degrees that just dries out your eyes.” They’re home, and many are doing fine, but it may take months or years to put their personal war behind them. Some never will.

Veterans almost certainly will have trouble talking about their experience and its aftermath. They may not even try. People who haven’t been through it just don’t understand — or worse, they think they do, because they’ve been following the news.

When veterans try to give an inkling of what they’ve lived through, they may speak in the present tense — as if they’re still getting mortared on base or ambushed at night in a convoy. Some of them are still at war. How can you leave it behind when it has been your “normal” for so long?

“If we hear a mortar shell explode, it’s no big deal,” says St. Kate’s senior Heather Stiles. “You open the door and look around. If no one is yelling or screaming or running, you go back in your room and continue reading your book. “The stuff that was normal to us is not normal.”

So they do their best to adjust to their new normal, to studies and jobs and families and friends. Nearly two dozen veterans are enrolled at St. Kate’s. Thiesse plans to graduate in December, Stiles in May 2009. Army medic Wolfe has a baby of his own due in September and anticipates a St. Kate’s nursing degree in 2010. Life goes on, and yet the transition is difficult. Stiles tried to go through it abruptly, resuming classes at St.Kate’s just days after her return in 2007. Coming back to school was right for her, she thinks — what she truly wanted.

In a way St. Kate’s went to Iraq with Stiles, who had attended for two years and had just been accepted into the nursing program before she was deployed. Her balm during bad times in Iraq was the prospect of returning to St. Kate’s main campus in St. Paul. “One thing that got me through,” says Stiles, “was visualizing this uphill walk on campus — it’s a beautiful campus — and knowing that the hard work is done. I’m done getting into the program, my career and financial stress will be gone, and really soon I’ll be doing something good and something I love.”

Veterans of past wars no doubt have been part of the St. Kate’s community, creating little stir. Now, however, society has gained a greater awareness of veterans’ needs, and at least the start of an understanding about how to serve this population of students. You might not pick them out in a classroom. They may look a little drawn and tired. Sometimes they may be irritable, wary of crowds, jumpy. If a book slides off a desk and falls with a bang — the student in the back of the classroom who quietly gets up and steps outside may be a veteran. She needs a little fresh air, a moment to collect herself. She might not come back that day.

Saying nothing to veterans about their service is fine. If you want to say something, you might merely say: “Thank you for your service,” suggests Connie Bengston, who holds an associate degree in nursing from St. Kate’s and will finish a Bachelor of Science in nursing this fall.

Bengston isn’t a war-zone veteran herself, but she works with returning vets. The nurse case manager for the Veterans Administration, she lives in Forest Lake, Minnesota, and works in Superior, Wisconsin. Bengston greets returning veterans as they arrive, checking in with them at 30, 60 and 90 days and seeing them at other times as needed.

Some veterans are still on high alert. The skill is hard to put down. Some don’t want to put it down. They may be sent back to war and they want to be ready. How does war affect soldiers? “First and foremost, it’s a life-altering experience,” says Bengston. And secondly, “their experience is very unique, very personal.”

Veterans at St. Kate’s may access the support services available to all students, including counseling, academic advising, learning centers, a health-and-wellness service and campus ministry.

What can the rest of us do for veterans? “The best thing that we can offer is a respectful ear and an open heart if and when they choose to discuss their experience,” says Michael C. Peterson, director of counseling and student development at St. Kate’s Minneapolis campus.

Colleagues and faculty members have been asking Peterson about services available to student vets. He sent an e-mail to the College’s healthcare program directors last July alerting them to the difficult transition some veterans face. “While it may be true that most veterans readjust quickly, many others experience difficulties in a variety of ways,” Peterson wrote.

“Like other students who experience emotional or medical issues, a referral to the Personal Counseling Center or Health and Wellness Center may be beneficial.” Faculty and staff might also direct veterans to services such as a Veterans Resource Center or Veterans Administration Medical Center, he says.

Other faculty and staff have helped quietly, behind the scenes — staying in touch while students are in Iraq. Stiles says professors Kurt Olson (biology), Chris Palahniuk (biology), Bill McDonough (theology) and Gabrielle Civil (English) came to her going-away party, and Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs Brian Bruess assured her she wouldn’t have to reapply to the nursing program when she returned.

When veterans come back, some faculty cut them some slack if personal issues take precedence over academics. Helping veterans isn’t a one-way transaction. Veterans bring a broader perspective and worldview to the campus as well. “There is something to be said about wisdom through experience,” Peterson explains.

Some of those experiences are easier to talk about than others. In Iraq, Thiesse was a civil military-affairs sergeant with the Minnesota Army National Guard. She taught first aid in the villages and worked at an Iraqi hospital as well.

After the first-aid classes, villagers would often serve chai tea — “half sugar and really good,” says Thiesse. At some of the villages she and other soldiers shared a meal with their Iraqi hosts. “That was something I’ll never forget, especially working with the people there,” says Thiesse. “It felt like I made a difference.”

The military sponsors many such civilaffairs missions, Thiesse says. She thinks the media underreport that type of news, leading to misperceptions back home about “how much of an influence we are having there and how much the Iraqi people really want us there,” says Thiesse. “It’s just a few of the extremists who don’t want us.” Thiesse worked from the base called Camp Anaconda at Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. Getting mortared there was routine, a sequence of three or four explosive shells dropping out of the sky. One night about a dozen came in. Thiesse thought she was used to it by then — “but they just kept getting closer and closer to the sleeping area,” she says. “We were just a little nervous about that. That would be something I don’t care to remember.”

Kristen Kaufmann, staff sergeant in the Minnesota Air National Guard, graduated from St. Kate’s this spring. She’s a public-relations major who hopes to find work as a publicist that keeps her close to her passion for art history. First, however, she is going back to Iraq in September.

Kaufmann volunteered for her first deployment, though she didn’t know where she would be sent. Starting in 2004 she served four months in Iraq, working cargo processing at Camp Anaconda — known as Mortaritaville for the chronic bombardment. If shells fell as she worked on the flight line, Kaufmann had a milelong race from air strip to bomb shelter.

“It would take about six minutes to run sometimes,” she says, “and we were running fast.”

A bombardment in December 2004 was particularly unnerving. The explosions began just after midnight. Kaufmann sheltered in a tunnel-like bunker 30 feet long and six feet wide with 20 people she didn’t know, including Army personnel and Arabic-speaking foreigners. Usually she counted the blasts. This time, the explosions were so close by and close together that she lost count.

For an hour and a half she huddled, not knowing what was going on outside. “It was the first time I truly felt like a target. Like a sitting duck,” Kaufmann says. “And I could feel the ground shaking. Just a sitting duck. There was nothing I could do except hide and pray.

“And I realized at that point I wanted to go home. It was the first time I ever felt that I wanted to go home.”

As an Army specialist, nursing major Stiles was first based at Taji 20 miles north of Baghdad and then in downtown Baghdad itself. She drove 5,000-gallon fuel tankers, resupplying forward bases. After 15 months of sitting in front of a blast waiting to happen, Stiles is still trying to get over the raw edge of her emotions.

She would rather forget the night of March 14, 2007. “You could feel it in the air. It just didn’t feel right,” she says now. “We thought, well, maybe we’ll see some action. Which is stupid. But you get bored. Not that you want to see anybody get hurt.”

The convoy left camp via a different gate than usual, which Stiles thought was ominous. Four hundred meters out, the lead vehicles in the convoy were ambushed. Stiles was in the passenger seat of a loaded fuel tanker with no place to go and with gunfire ahead. An Iraqi police officer banged on the window of the driver’s side. Her driver tonight is inexperienced, 19 years old. Stiles is on the radio to others in the convoy. “Do not open that door whatever you do,” she tells her driver. She is suspicious of the Iraqi police. Sometimes they collaborate with the bombers.

“That was the first time I cocked my weapon in the country with the intent to use it,” she says now. “If he didn’t listen to me and opened that door, I’m not going to let me feel like it was my fault that this 19-year-old kid gets shot in the face.”

The driver-side door stays shut. The convoy tries to turn around. Ahead, a vehicle catches fire and three British Army soldiers die in the flames. Stiles can do nothing. You don’t drive a loaded fuel truck into a firefight. American gun trucks respond, but it’s too late. “We watched them die and then left,” says Stiles, “and I didn’t know how to feel about that. What were we going to do? Go in there with our fuel tanker and save the day?”

It’s those unresolved feelings that stay with veterans. Stiles is trying to focus on her nursing studies. “My deal now,” she says, “is to avoid it. To make it go away.”

Hardest for Wolfe to forget are cases such as the blinded baby, and the American wounded in the trauma hospital’s intensive-care unit in Balad. There Wolfe helped prep a soldier for medical evacuation. “His feet were gone,” says Wolfe. “He had lost them in the blast.”

The soldier was conscious but intubated and couldn’t talk. On a satellite phone, the doctor called his mother and told her what had happened. But every time the doctor used standard medical language — below-the-knee amputation — “the soldier got really mad,” says Wolfe. “He wanted us to say that he only lost his feet.”

Wolfe treated another Marine whose face was badly injured. Wolfe remembers him because the Marine had the names of three fallen comrades tattooed on his chest.

Wolfe also treated Iraqis — civilians and children. And next to them in the hospital, also being treated for injuries, might be a suspected insurgent, maybe the one responsible for the injuries of the others, blindfolded and restrained with security guards hovering.

Just doing his job, cleaning up blood pooled on the floor, going on to the next wounded soldier or civilian or child — medic Wolfe didn’t have time to ponder. But now, he says, trying to tell those stories is hard.

Professor Ann Redmond, CSJ, is deeply impressed by the way students support one another. The College of St. Catherine as a whole embraces anyone undergoing a difficult transition.

“Anybody coming through a trauma such as war, I’m convinced from my experience as a teacher, finds a supportive environment, both from other students as well as from faculty and staff,” says Redmond, a retired professor and cocoordinator of the Center for Women, Economic Justice and Public Policy. “I do think that St. Kate’s is a place of healing and acceptance, although many of us do not see war as ever being a solution to the world’s problems.”

Core to the College’s mission is Catholic Social Teaching, which promotes peace as positive and action oriented. Among its key principles — stewardship of creation, human dignity, forging the common good — is the promotion of peace. That particular social teaching means more than the absence of war, but a projection of “mutual respect and confidence between peoples and nations,” according to the Office for Social Justice, part of Catholic Charities in St. Paul. “Peace is the fruit of justice,” Pope John Paul II once said, “and is dependent upon right order among human beings.”

The experiences and traumas that veterans bring home needn’t be at odds with that. These students offer a quiet strength to their communities — “having our emotions tried and tested to the extreme and coming out fine,” is how Wolfe explains it. “We have a good knowledge of ourselves and have a very good adapt-and-overcome attitude.”

What place for them better than St. Kate’s? Where veterans have served, people kill over politics. Here, we may disagree — but we sit down together. We listen to one another. We open the books to study. And we go on with our lives.

Marc Hequet is a longtime contributor to Time magazine and other national and regional publications. He was 5 km from the Lebanese border when Hezbollah began its bombardment of northern Israel in 2006. He continued blogging from the excavation at Susita and elsewhere during the ensuing war.

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