Back Home: Iraq War Vets Returning To College


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(Davis, CA)
Sunday, March 18, 2007


It’s a busy Friday afternoon at the UC Davis student union.  Dozens of students walk by junior Brian Sparks, a history major, who offers them an easy smile and a friendly hello.   They don’t know Sparks is back at school after spending a year as a soldier in Iraq. 
Ask Sparks to describe himself and it doesn’t come up
 
I’m Brain Sparks.  I’m 22 years old.  I like to fish…long walks on the beach…that’s about it.
 
Sparks was in his sophomore year at Davis, when his National Guard unit was called to Iraq:
 
We actually got to Iraq on Valentine’s Day of 2005.  Just flew in, in a plane and then spent the night at Baghdad airport.  Nothing special.
 
Assigned to an Army infantry unit…he helped keep peace on the streets of Baghdad:
 
That summer, we got hit by a lot of roadside bombs, drive by shootings, sniper shootings, things started falling apart in the summer.
 
True to his nonchalant nature, Sparks downplays the violence.  But when he recalls returning to Davis, he admits it had an effect on him:
 
I didn’t have too many bad dreams or anything when I was in Iraq.  But once I got back, I started having bad dreams, and that slowly progressed into more than that.  Like I started hearing gun shots when there was nothing there, no sound at all.
 
Sparks went to the campus counseling center for only two sessions.  Then he dropped out of school for a quarter.
 
Most of the veterans are doing what they’ve always done.  They just kind of stifle those kinds of thoughts and feelings and try to push through on their own, because they don’t feel comfortable in sharing it. 

 
That’s director of student advising at UC Davis Phil Knox: 
 
We’re trying to get them to realize that it’s perfectly normal to have those feelings, and that they should talk about them, because it can only help, it can’t really hurt.
 
Knox says enrollment figures show Sparks is one of only three combat vets at Davis.  The school has about 100 vets and reservists on its rolls. 
Davis and other state colleges and universities will soon be expanding their veterans’ services under a new initiative.
Jeff Weston is the Veterans Affairs Coordinator at Sacramento State,  which has more than 500 vets enrolled – the most since the Vietnam War:
We are focusing on a Troops to College initiative, created by Governor Schwarzenegger, which challenged the universities to become more veteran friendly and really target the veterans to get them into our schools.
 
Weston is a member of the state’s Troops to College committee. He’s written guidelines for all CSU campuses so each can form a Veterans Support Team.  The team will provide information on matters such as financial aid, coursework and counseling.   Members will also go to bases, encouraging vets to follow through on their education opportunities.
Bucky Peterson is vice president at Sonoma State and the instigator of the Troops to College program:
 
Ninety six percent of them say that one of the main reasons they joined the military was to get an education.  Less than 50 percent are using that opportunity.
 
Officials with the U.S. Department of Defense have told the Troops to College committee no other state has done more to make education for vets a priority.
 
Meanwhile, back at the Davis Student Union, Brian Sparks says his own future is uncertain.  He’s still a National Guard member and could be called back to Iraq at any time. 
But he says he doesn’t worry about that.   Since returning to school after taking time off, he says he handles stress well:
 
 (Laughs) I handle it a lot better.  But the way I handle it is, uh…I don’t get stressed from finals, I don’t get stressed from papers.  I just don’t.  It’s insignificant really.   As long as I pass the class.   It’s not a major thing.
 
Sparks plans to run for student senate next year.  He says one of the issues he’ll campaign for is improving veterans’ services on campus.