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U of M Alumni Association: From combat to campus

The Warrior to Citizen Campaign helps student veterans transition back to civilian life. FROM MINNESOTA, THE U OF M ALUMNI MAGAZINE


Ross Hedlund and other war veterans struggle to fit in.
Photo by Mark Luinenburg
Ross Hedlund and other war veterans struggle to fit in.

University of Minnesota student Steve Biorn spent a year in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard, serving as a gunner on a Humvee patrolling “Route Irish,” the notorious artery between the Green Zone and the airport in Baghdad, and patrolling the city’s suburbs on foot. When he returned to Minnesota, Biorn wanted to talk about anything but Iraq.

After 18 months away from home, Biorn says, “I wanted to wear jeans and drive my car and grow my hair out and not shave forever.

University student Ross Hedlund served in Iraq nearly a year in 2004. When he returned home, he found that most people weren’t that interested in where he’d been or what he done. “I don’t think very many people care,” he says.

Hedlund admits he also had a hard time talking about the work he did, directing counterfire from mortars, artillery, and aircraft and tracking the result. “I had a real hard time adjusting when I got back, I guess because I didn’t talk about anything very much.”

These days Biorn and Hedlund have been talking more about their experiences in Iraq and what it’s like to come home. Both were interviewed as part of a new oral history project conducted by the U’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in cooperation with the Minnesota National Guard.

The oral history project is just one part of a larger effort called the Warrior to Citizen Campaign. Begun in May 2007, the campaign is a grassroots effort to help veterans reintegrate into their home communities and help those communities tap into the skills returning veterans acquired during their military service.

“It’s not a pity party,” says Dennis Donovan, who oversees the campaign under the umbrella of the Humphrey Institute’s Minnesota Works Together Initiative. “It’s not just ‘let’s go help the troops.’ Rather, it’s an intentional effort to help people think about their role as citizens in Minnesota.”

What that means, exactly, varies from community to community. Last January, for example, citizens in Bloomington organized a community “Stand To” at the city’s armory to recognize the contributions of 300 Bloomington service members. Local businesses offered discounts to service members and their families.

“A lot of us feel so disconnected from the war, and it can be hard to feel like there’s a way to have an impact in a positive way,” says Ellen Tveit, communications and partnership coordinator for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. “We see the benefit of people learning how to do work together at the community level.”

The oral history project is working to capture the stories of returning Minnesota veterans from all branches of service. Their stories will become part of a multimedia touring exhibit in 2009.

Collecting soldiers’ oral histories isn’t new. In fact, both the Minnesota Historical Society and the Library of Congress are already doing similar projects with veterans from past wars. What is different about this project is its immediacy, says James Fogerty, head of documentary programs for the Minnesota Historical Society. “You can really get a more immediate sense in some ways of how they feel,” Fogerty says.

Because the events are so fresh, veterans can give very vivid, detailed, and sometimes emotional accounts, says Kristin Farrell, the director of the oral history project. For some, sitting down with a volunteer interviewer may be the first time they have spoken of these events.

Having service members tell their stories so soon after they return will also help historians in the future, Fogerty says. They’ll be able to go back and reinterview them again in 10 or 20 years and find out how their lives were changed by their experiences.

The opportunity to have her experience become part of history was one of the reasons Karly Vogel wanted to share her story. As a liaison with the Minnesota National Guard chaplain’s office, Vogel was stationed for six months in 2004 at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where wounded service members are sent for evaluation. She met patients as they arrived at the hospital and helped them during their stay with clothing and phone cards and other services the chaplain’s office could provide.

“It was an intense experience for me. There were a few [service members] that died while I was there,” she says. “I kind of viewed the experience as being a sister, or a daughter, or whatever that person needed while they were in the hospital.”

Her time at the hospital changed her, Vogel says. Like most returning service members, she came back a different person. “When you’re coming home from such a life-changing experience, working with life and death, and with people who’ve lost limbs, or who have been seriously burned, it’s very hard to come home to friends who are still in college, and their favorite things to do are to go bowling or go spend time at someone’s apartment.”

The transition from war zone to welcome home has accelerated and is causing problems for many returning service members who find themselves adrift after military life. One unique aspect of the oral history project, Farrell says, is that it seeks to capture veterans’ reintegration experience as well as their service: “what it feels like to come back to a country that may not be entirely well-educated about what went on in the other country,” Farrell explains. “It is also about helping people in the community understand what it feels like to return within a day to a completely different society.”

Biorn was just 17 when he enlisted in the Army National Guard Reserves in 2002. He did his basic training between his junior and senior year of high school. His family moved around the Twin Cities’ western suburbs, eventually putting down roots in Plymouth. As one of four kids, Biorn saw the military as a way to pay for college. He was also something of a thrill seeker then, he admits. Outgoing and affable, with an open, boyish face, Biorn says the time he spent in Iraq changed him. He grew up, fast. He’s no longer a thrill seeker. He, too, has become more dedicated and focused and is planning to start dental school this fall.

Even so, when Biorn came home, he didn’t have a job and couldn’t yet start school. At loose ends, he went back to work for his high school employer and spent the next few months changing tires and oil. He didn’t have much to say to his parents, or they to him. “Awkward silence is the best way to describe it,” he says.

When the new semester started, he enrolled at the University, but that had challenges too. His high school friends were graduating and moving on. The freshmen around him were significantly younger. And most college students’ concerns about exams, parties, and social connections seemed trivial compared with the life-and-death struggles in Iraq.

And then there is The Question.

Again and again, he says, acquaintances and even strangers have asked, “Did you kill anyone?”

The question leaves him speechless. “It’s disturbing that somebody would think it’s an OK question to ask, someone who doesn’t even know you,” he says. “It’s really personal.”

Like Biorn, Hedlund enlisted between his junior and senior years, at Osseo Senior High School. It seemed “like something to do,” he says. When another National Guard unit needed volunteers to go to Iraq, Hedlund stepped up. Soft-spoken and slender, with his hair cut military short, Hedlund fidgets as he talks about Iraq and his life since. But being able to talk more about the war has helped him make the transition back to civilian life, he says.

With no job to come back to, he spent the first month at home downing beer after beer and eating pizza. He had trouble following the rules—especially driving. Things didn’t seem to matter much. For a couple of years, he says, he drank a lot.

“People aren’t dying [here]. It just doesn’t seem nearly as serious. Kind of surreal, I guess. You dreamt about it for like 12 months while you’re over there, and then you get back and it’s nothing at all like what you think. It’s a big disappointment.”

One of the hardest things, Hedlund says, is that back in the United States, the war is almost invisible and the deaths of Iraqi citizens the most invisible of all. “There’s ordinary people dying and being blown up and burning to death while we sit here drinking coffee,” he says. Hedlund confesses, however, that he’s become one of those people.

But he quit drinking and is happily busy with school and work, majoring in marketing and working fulltime for a security systems company in Roseville. Although he remains an active member of the National Guard until next year, he says he doesn’t think about his own experience unless someone asks him about it. It’s like high school, he says. “Once upon a time I went to high school, but I don’t really think about it that often.”

Vogel recently reenlisted with the Guard. She graduated from college last year with a degree in psychology, which she earned while working full-time. Now she’s working as a contractor for Military One Source, helping other returning service members with reintegration.

“We always tell them that reintegration is not like turning on a light switch. You’re not going to come home and just turn into who you used to be,” Vogel says. “It’s more like gradual temperature change. It takes a long time. After you’ve been gone for a year, it’s going to take you time to come back to the new normal.”

J. Trout Lowen (B.A. ’89) is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

A Place to Let Your Guard Down

When freshman orientation coordinators at the University of Minnesota told Steve Biorn he had to spend a night in the dorms with other incoming freshman, he dug in his heels. After a year of combat duty in Iraq, the Minnesota Army National Guard veteran could think of few things he’d rather do less than spend the night with a bunch of 18-year-old kids. The University relented and gave Biorn a quick, personal campus tour instead.

After the rigid structure of military life, student life can also feel a little too free-flowing for many vets, filled with too many choices. Just getting dressed and fixing her hair each day has been a trial for sophomore Morgan Hennessy. While stationed at the Balad U.S. military base outside of Baghdad with her Army National Guard unit, Hennessy never had to think about what to wear. And the less she looked like a woman, the better. To accompany her body armor, Hennessy developed a tough shell for protection.

Biorn and Hennessy are among more than 500 U students who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who often feel disconnected from their classmates, separated by age and life experience. At the Veterans Transition Center (VTC), on the third floor of Wesbrook Hall, student vets can let their hair down—if it’s had time to grow back. The VTC has couches, a TV and DVDs, computers and Internet access, and free snacks. Vets can let their guard down too. That’s not always so easy out in the greater University community.

Before the VTC opened in 2006, in a tiny space in EddyHall, even finding another veteran on campus was a challenge, says Aaron Ledebuhr, co-president of the student organization. “When I started my freshman year here in the fall of 2003, there weren’t any student veterans groups. There was no place I could go to meet other veterans,” Ledebuhr recalls.

Largely a social organization, the VTC’s doors are open to anyone—students and nonstudents, faculty and staff, veterans and civilians. On Fridays during the school year, the center pops for lunch, usually pizza or subs and sodas, and everybody is welcome just to hang out. It’s a nice way to wind down from the week, Ledebuhr says. “It just helps you readjust to know there’s other people who know where you’re at, what you’re going through,” Hennessy says.

As of now, the VTC has about 100 people on its e-mail list. And while most of the members are active military or veterans, they have diverse opinions about the war, and sometimes discussions about it become intense. But at the core, they have a respect for each other that comes from a shared experience.

That respect isn’t always something veterans feel from other students, however.  “It’s hard to be for something that so many people are against,” says Alex Dowds, who is studying Arabic language and culture and Islamic history while on active duty with the Army. Dowds was upset by a demonstration last year where students planted small white flags in front of Coffman Memorial Union for every soldier killed in the wars.

“To see the life of a friend of mine expressed as a three-by-three [inch] white flag was extremely upsetting,” he recalls. “I feel that the people who put on that display probably don’t know anybody who fought and paid the sacrifice overseas. If they did, I doubt they would symbolize their life with a four-cent flag—and not even an American flag.”

While the VTC isn’t an educational organization, members have organized a speaker series in which student veterans share stories about their deployments. And last year, the VTC sponsored a screening of the documentary film Iraq: A Student Veteran’s Experience at Coffman Memorial Union. Working with the Warrior to Citizen Campaign, a program of the Center for Democracy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the VTC is also reaching out to the larger community. Last spring, students from St. Bernard’s High School in St. Paul who have a sibling, parent, or other loved one on active deployment came to visit the VTC to hear from those who have been there what it’s like to go to war. This fall, the VTC will likely expand some of its programs and get a facelift, thanks to a $40,000 donation last May from the ATT/Operation Homefront, a grassroots, volunteer organization that supports veterans and their families.

And, with help from the University’s student housing services, VTC members are also working to create a list of housing options for incoming student veterans.