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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Student Soldiers Return For College

Student Soldiers Return For CollegeBy Kristen DeOliveira

Since September 11, 2001, 68 UMass Boston students have had their education interrupted due to military obligations. Veterans Affairs reports that, as of October 19, 2004, there are 38 currently active students on campus that have either returned to school or are beginning their education after they have served.

As a result of Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Noble Eagle, 15 students were deployed to Iraq and Kuwait; five to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, or Pakistan; six were stationed in the Philippines; three in Mongolia, Korea, and Egypt; five on bases throughout the U.S.; and the remainder provided support and extra security at airports and other institutions throughout the country.

According to Gus St. Silva, director of Veterans Affairs, the numbers are not exact and may be low. Often times National Guard and Reserve members do not receive their benefits through Veterans Affairs and therefore are unaccounted for. Failure to provide the registrar with proper codes for military-related withdrawals can also skew counts. Despite these factors, St. Silva estimates that there are approximately 600 students currently utilizing Veterans Affairs’ services on campus.

Ray Travers is on of these students. Travers’ desire to join the military was spawned of his work as a commercial fisherman. “I actually worked with a lot of old-timers who had been in World War II, Korea, and stuff like that,” says Travers. “I just thought it was a great reflection of that generation that so many people – men and women – would just automatically give their time before they went on to start their life…just to say, you know, I’m doing my part for all I have. I just thought that was really great, so I figured they were all good guys so I’d follow in their footsteps.”

Travers, who works at both the Veterans Center and the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, spent three years in the Army before enrolling here this fall. As an infantry specialist in the First Ranger Battalion, the freshman likens his work to police duty, centering on collecting information through raids and patrolling city and national borders.

“It wasn’t anything like I expected. There was no real way to bounce what we were doing off of anything else… It was kind of hard to prepare for that or really even grasp what was going on because you’re just at such a heightened awareness,” says Travers. It’s hard to really absorb it all.”

Throughout his tour, Travers had both positive and negative encounters with the people of these occupied countries. From working alongside an Afghani man who was tortured and held by the Russians for more than four years to driving through cities and towns.

“When you’d go through certain areas there was a real outpouring of support, people would come out, they’d wave to you, they’d be glad to see you. Then there are other areas, like 15 miles the other direction, where we’d go through a town and be looking around and no one would say a thing, and no one would move,” explains Travers. “For the most part, and more so in Afghanistan than Iraq, they were very open to you…they were more curious than anything else. If a military rides through your town, you’re going to be like ‘what’s going on?’ you’re going to check it out,” he says.

For Travers, traveling through unfriendly towns was the worst part. “I mean they’re definitely hostile, but even going through when it was just calm and nothing was happening and seeing how much hatred they had for Americans…they came out and they let you know they didn’t want you there.” He adds that this interaction was difficult in that the same people accepting food and shaking hands one day would participate in ambushes the next.

While deployed, Travers had little downtime and was anxious to get back to all the pleasantries of civilian life. “You want to get home and you think about all the little amenities, like ice cream or pizza or something,” says Travers. “But, you can’t have those thoughts without realizing that for every one of us that’s going someone else is coming.”

Caroline Muriama, a Sergeant in the National Guard and a Biology major, came home from deployment in Iraq seven months ago, after her six month tour was extended to fourteen months.

Muriama, who has been in the Guard for five years, signed up for duty to prove herself and generate money for college. A truck driver in the 1058 Transportation Unit, Miriama learned to change the tire on a five-ton truck as her transportation company was responsible for transporting soldiers and providing extra security for convoys.

Unlike Travers, who was already in the Army full-time, Caroline’s commitment to the National Guard was one weekend per month and two weeks during the summer. She had just enrolled to begin school here when her unit was activated. “It was actually a really big shock,” says Muriama. “We found out on a Friday…and by the next Thursday, we were like leaving. So, it was just five days of chaos, just trying to get your financial things settled, trying to withdraw from school, trying to get time out from work, trying to say goodbye to your family.”

Her unit had missions that lasted 36 to 72 hours from Kuwait to Iraq. “You just had a mission to get from point A to point B, so whatever happened to you was just out of the blue, you got hit so you had to stop,” says Muriama. “I think that was the hardest part about being there, and it’s still the hardest part about being home and realizing there’s people there, that it’s happening to them every day.”

Her favorite memories were interactions with the Iraqi children. “It was so funny because women in Iraq cannot be in the military…If you take your hat off and you smile they can tell that you’re female. And they’re like, ‘Misses, misses, I love you misses,” says Muriama.

She often volunteered for Sunday missions to bring relief to villages, through which she picked up a few Arabic words. “When you stop the kids came running. It was probably 130 degrees, the sand was hotter than it could ever be here, and they have no shoes.”

Muriama lived in a tent city of sorts, where members of her unit built a mini-Fenway Park for whiffleball tournaments, played cards or board games, and read during their downtime.

Of the 146 members of her company, Muriama says that roughly 16 of them were female. “It was kind of tough because you always had to prove yourself, cause the guys can be very, like, macho…That drives you to succeed…They pushed me to always want to do better,” she says.

Muriama, whose father passed away while she was in Iraq, was anxious to return home to her family and friends. But she says that everything at home seemed to remain the same as when she had left, while she changed.

“Nothing changes. You change. You come back and your friends still do the same things, the Wal-Mart you left is still there,” says Muriama. “We were so accustomed to mortar rounds, to seeing the kids there, just the whole environment that you had no perspective of what home was. You forgot. You forgot how a pair of jeans felt, you forgot how you had makeup on…when you get home it’s like: wow. And you realize you had this, you had all of this.”

Despite their distinct experiences, both Travers and Muriama share close relationships with the people they served with, and both admit that their experiences in the military have changed them.

Travers has since left the Army to pursue his education and Muriama has three years remaining in her contract with the Guard. Both maintain a low profile when it comes to their military ties in classes.

“I think people judge too much, I’ve experienced it since I’ve been home,” says Muriama. “People will jump to conclusions or they’ll make this a political issue when for every single soldier there it’s not a political issue. It’s about you signed a contract, you have a job to do, and you’re going to do it to the best of your ability.”

She adds, “I don’t talk about it at school…I just haven’t really felt a need to, it’s not that I’m ashamed or scared of how people will react. It’s just another part of my life.”

“I would no sooner tell someone that I washed dishes for two years in high school and that experience effected me in a lot of ways,” agrees Travers. “The experience left me with a lot of questions that I haven’t quite answered for myself yet. So, I don’t know how comfortable I am coming to conclusions for people when I haven’t come to one myself…I could be a complete moron and say something, but they might think that because I was there it was more valid.”

Travers admits that he enjoys keeping his first-hand experience under wraps when discussion in the classroom and elsewhere when the topic of the war and soldiers involved surfaces. “They’re just not privy to the fact that I’ve been there,” he says. “I am who I am.”