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Vets face little overt hostility on campuses, but they feel different from other students

By EDWARD M. EVELD
The Kansas City Star

On campus, it’s the little things.

Walking past a group of street-corner war protesters, the ones holding signs that say “Honk for peace,” Trisha Marie Thompson has a visceral reaction.

She has seen the protesters before. She knows deep down they aren’t taking aim at her personally. Still …

“I just want to run home, put on my uniform and walk up to them and say, ‘I think you guys are misinformed.’ ”

In a political science class, Gerald Caetano listens with gritted teeth as another student, 18 or 19 years old, broadly states that the military is “over there torturing Iraqis” just like Saddam Hussein did.

“I know when to bite my tongue,” Caetano said. “When I first got back, I would almost have to hold myself in my chair.”

Felix Zacharias usually prefers not to discuss his war experience with strangers, especially when he hears this question: “So did you kill anybody?”

“It’s not fair,” Zacharias said. “It’s about as insulting as asking, ‘How many people have you had sex with?’ ”

Thousands of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are trying to get back to normal by starting or continuing their college educations. They aren’t returning to campuses that are hotbeds of anti-war ferment.

Far from it. Instead, in-your-face episodes are occasional but powerful reminders to service members on campus that they’re a little bit, well, different.

“There’s no real openly negative response like there was for the Vietnam veterans,” said Dan Parker of the Collegiate Veterans Association, a campus group begun last year at the University of Kansas. “The worst-case scenario is you kind of get ignored, but at least they’re not spitting on you. Most people are considerate enough to realize that if they disagree with the war, don’t take it out on the veterans.”

Parker said there’s often a social disconnect with other students, who aren’t sure how to react to someone with such a different life experience. Plus, those back from Iraq and Afghanistan typically are older than traditional students.

“As soon as somebody knows you’re a few years older and a veteran, a lot of times that throws up a wall,” he said.

Zacharias is a 25-year-old sophomore in political science at KU and a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves. He was on active duty from 2000 to 2004 but hadn’t been rotated to Iraq or Afghanistan. He didn’t feel right about that.

“I wanted to go to Iraq very badly,” he said.

Working at a Belton Marine Corps reserve center, Zacharias made it known he wanted to be deployed. He got his wish in the spring of 2006. Among his duties in Iraq were company police sergeant, turret gunner and company intelligence chief.

Zacharias returned to Kansas City at the end of April this year and re-enrolled at KU. He hadn’t declared a major before and now has decided on political science.

“I’d like to get into government,” he said. “I’ll do some internships here and there. Right now I’m used to being the instrument. I’d like to see how the mechanism works.”

Most times, his military service doesn’t come up in casual conversation. When it does, nearly everyone is respectful, he said. But he declines to answer the “did you kill anyone?” query.

“I mean, I didn’t, but I don’t like the question,” he said. “I’ve been shot at. I’ve had people in my sights and had to make a judgment call not to do it.”

In a literature class a few weeks ago, during a discussion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a student labeled as sexist a character’s decision to lie to protect the feelings of a woman. Zacharias found himself defending the character, explaining to the class that he was able to inform men that a friend had died in Iraq but felt ill-equipped to deliver the same news to women.

“It seems sexist, but that’s real life,” he told the class, which grew quiet.

“I thought, ‘Oh great, I weirded everybody out,’ ” he said. “I almost walked out of class to sit alone for a few minutes. But then I was fine.”

In fact, Zacharias lost 11 friends of his own while he was in Iraq. He wishes everyone would try to understand how devastating that is.

“Imagine losing a friend to an auto accident every month for 11 months,” he said. “At first it’s very traumatic and then you become … I guess the right word is numb.”

Zacharias coordinated a candlelight vigil on the eve of Sept. 11 as a remembrance of 9/11 victims and for those have died in post-9/11 conflicts. He wanted the gathering to be non-political, not a vehicle to condone or support the war in Iraq. So when a campus theater group asked to perform an anti-war scene based on “Antigone” at the vigil, he turned them down.

About 60 people came to the vigil that night. They sang “God Bless America.”

“It felt really good to do,” he said.

Caetano, Army sergeant first class, was honorably discharged in July 2006 after 11 years in the military. He served two yearlong tours in Iraq, starting with the invasion in March 2003 and again in January 2005.

His classmate’s comment about torture in Iraq, a reference to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, was typical of random comments he has heard, and overheard, from students and professors.

“That was a handful of people,” Caetano said about Abu Ghraib.

The irritation for Caetano is not just that some of the comments are overly broad but that to many veterans they reveal ingratitude.

“I was there during the invasion,” Caetano said. “I’ve been to Abu Ghraib. I’ve broken down doors and arrested Iraqis. I’ve helped train Iraqi police. For me, personally, I just have a different perspective from the college student.

“It’s like they’re ungrateful. They’re safe and at a nice university while people their same age are getting shot at and blown up.”

Caetano, 30, is president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association which, like the group at KU, wants to draw attention to veterans and reservists on campus. Returning service members often need help navigating a university bureaucracy geared largely for traditional students.

Thompson could use some help about now. She’s trying to get into MU’s nursing program but is stuck on a waiting list. Her nursing prerequisites are complete, so meanwhile she’s piling up credit hours toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology or general studies.

She’s a specialist in the National Guard, and call-ups have delayed her progress. Thompson served in Iraq from January to September of 2005.

“When I got back, all my friends were graduating,” she said.

At 26, Thompson feels a little old on campus. And sometimes she acts it. During an unruly sociology class, with students chatting away while the instructor was lecturing, she let loose.

“I said, ‘Can you guys all be quiet? People are trying to get an education here, and some of us are paying a lot for it.’ The instructor had this shocked looked that I was able to silence the whole class,” she said. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

Thompson’s National Guard pay and financial assistance she receives for her military services covers tuition expenses, but she’s on her own for living expenses. To stay afloat, Thompson has been working at the university hospital pharmacy 24 hours a week, a marathon of shifts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

As for the campus “honk for peace” protesters, Thompson said, their message bothers her because it doesn’t tell the whole story. Her experience in Iraq was mostly positive. In one assignment she drove a dump truck at a demolition site.

“We pulled down old buildings,” she said. “It was great. I loved it.”

Admittedly, her locations at Tallil Air Base and near Basra in southern Iraq were relatively peaceful places.

“The Iraqis where I was really liked us,” she said. “It was a friendly atmosphere for the most part. The little kids looked up to us. The only thing that was unbearable was dealing with the 130-degree weather sometimes.”

Any help for veterans and reservists is much appreciated, Thompson said. But she doesn’t want anyone to stick up for her by claiming that the troops were wronged by being sent overseas.

“We’re the ones who signed on the dotted line,” she said.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, features writer, call 816-234-4442 or send e-mail to eeveld@kcstar.com.

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