From Iraq battlefields to books

By Katherine Brachelli
November 17, 2006

Meghan Hurley

For a growing number of college students, like 23-year-old Sgt. Robert T. Brown, returning from deployments in Iraq and the cost of getting an education now includes experiences that many of their peers cannot fully relate to.

Moved by patriotism and enticed by the prospect of tuition aid, at age 17 Brown signed up with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Brown said, “Joining the Marine Corps was something that I thought about all through high school and wanted to do.”

Ninety-six percent of the U.S. Marine Corps recruits are high-school graduates, according to the New York Times.

After serving four years’ active duty and two tours in Iraq, Brown, a new veteran, is hitting the books once again. Brown faces a jarring re-entry into campus life, pressured by lost classroom time.

Now back at school, Brown, a sophomore criminal justice major at Raritan Valley Community College, is continuing his education to become a state trooper.

Receiving mostly A’s, Brown said that he is grateful and more focused than ever on getting a degree.

Brown said, “My four year vacancy from school was a time of maturing for me. I had a different outlook on life when I returned home.”

At times when Brown was in the classroom and when the topic of the war in Iraq was brought up, he did feel as though some students did have a juvenile outlook on the war and that they seemed uneducated. However, Brown also thinks that students have the ability to gain a healthy idea of what is going on in Iraq, because many military members are sharing their experiences after serving in Iraq.

Brown can relate to students on an academic level. However, there are times that the age difference between the incoming freshman and Brown can be difficult, because he feels left behind in his studies. Brown stated that everyone respects him for his time serving in Iraq and no one ever makes him feel uncomfortable about his age. Brown also said that his military role has helped to define who he is and it is something that he takes great pride in it.

Brown said, “I think the fact that I want to be a state trooper somewhat maintains my militaristic lifestyle.”

Brown, who is now an inactive reserve, with less than eight months remaining until he has completed his term for the Marine Corps, admits there is not a day that goes by when he doesn’t think about his time in Iraq.

Brown’s first tour with the Third Battalion Second Marine Division started in Kuwait and concluded in Nasiriyah. He served as an operator in the Motor T unit. A Motor T unit often is attached to an infantry unit to move troops around. In Brown’s first tour every member of his battalion returned home safely, except for one, who died in a vehicle accident.

Brown’s second tour in Iraq ended differently than his first tour.

Brown said, “It was a lot worse going back the second time because everything had escalated. I saw a lot more than my first tour.”

Serving as an operator of the Motor T again, Brown along with the Second Battalion Second Marine Division began their tour in Fallujah. Brown ended his tour in Mahmudiyah, and when he returned home the Second Battalion Second Marine Division came back with six fewer members. These six had all died in combat.

Brown said, “It was tough. I didn’t know the guys personally but the loss was hard for all of us.”

It is not always easy for a soldier to fold up feelings like a set of fatigues and store them neatly on a shelf.

The Clinics of the Veterans Affairs Department have treated an estimated 50,000 Iraq veterans for mental health concerns, according to the New York Times.

Although Brown admitted that his tours were “quite an eye-opener” and that he thinks constantly thinks about what he saw, he does not feel as though he needs any counseling assistance.

Brown relies on his girlfriend, Alison Bigwood, and his family members such as his brother, Cpl. Eric T. Brown, who is also in the Marine Corps, as his leaning post for support.

Brown said that the worst part of both of his tours was leaving his family and friends behind, but the most rewarding part of his tours was seeing his friends and family when he returned home.

Brown said, “It was challenge maintaining a relationship with everyone that was at home, but in the end it made us all closer.”

Writing letters home and placing a phone call almost after four months was the only way Brown was able to contact home while on his first tour. Brown stated that it was much easier to contact home during his second tour because they had access to computers and phones.

Brown said, “I’m grateful for what I have because of what I’ve seen. My experience in Iraq definitely shined a new light on things. Everyday I try to remind myself of how bad it was there, and how good we have it here.”

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Katherine Brachelli

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