The veteran students: Former Iraq war soldiers pursue degrees at GW

Sophomore Kevin Blanchard walks down the street like any other 24-year-old, except he has a mild limp. It’s so unnoticeable that it’s hard to believe he lost one of his legs while serving in the war in Iraq.

At GW, Blanchard’s like any other college student. He’s taking six classes and spends most of his time studying in Gelman library. He has ambitions to go to Harvard University for his masters, become an entrepreneur and start his own business – maybe a fitness center. Not many here know about his past or his accident. He doesn’t dwell on that. He only sees a bright future ahead.

“Some guys stay home and live off their disability,” said Blanchard, who uses a prosthetic limb for his lost leg, and has another leg that was severely damaged. “I understand that because they’ve been through enough, but that’s just not me.”

He’s one of a handful of students at GW who have been to Iraq and have returned to campus – or in Blanchard’s case, transferred here after spending time at the local veteran’s hospital – to finish up their education and continue on the paths they started before the war.

Blanchard grew up in Roanoke, Va., and after high school he went to Virginia Western Community College, but that also wasn’t for him. After a few years he turned to the military, partially because his father served in Vietnam, but also for personal reasons.

“I thought I needed to get more discipline and find out more about myself,” he said. “I needed to do something more.”

He went into the Marine Corps, not expecting to go to war. In January 2004, he was sent to California where he spent time training before he was deployed to a base in Al Assad, Iraq.

“I was a 20-year-old guy in a combat zone and looking at everybody as an enemy,” he said. “I would see little children and not know what they can do.” He said that was the hardest thing for him to get used to.

Blanchard described Iraq as a hot, depressing region where there was no plumbing and soldiers went sometimes three weeks without showering.

He was a combat engineer, meaning he had a number of part-time jobs, raiding city blocks for insurgents and trying to recover improvised explosive devices and other handmade bombs littered around the country.

“We would be up two or three days straight and have to stay awake,” he said, referring to preparing for and following through with a raid. But then one day his entire world changed.

Blanchard was driving down a dirt road in Iraq in a Humvee and the vehicle hit a roadside bomb, exploding through the engine. That was the end of Blanchard’s military tour – his left leg had to be amputated and his right was badly damaged.

“A doc put tourniquets on both my legs and the Army took me to a field tent,” he said. “I woke up eight days later from a drug-induced coma. I was taken to Germany basically dying.”

Blanchard’s parents were on their way. The military had called them telling them to say their goodbyes before they lost him. “I got saved by a miracle one night,” he said. But Blanchard didn’t think about himself when he woke up.

“I wanted to go back with my Marines. I felt like I left them,” he said. “Even though I was in a lot of pain I wanted to go back with them in case they needed me.”

His status improved and they transferred him to Bethesda, Md. He spent five weeks as an inpatient where they fought to save his right leg and then spent 10 months at Walter Reed – which he described as a mix between a military barracks and a hotel – doing physical therapy. He was in a wheelchair for six months.

“I used to play football and basketball. I was very active,” he said. “It was pretty tough to sit still.”

Junior Jason Bauman didn’t want to sit still either after finishing his tour. He spent seven months in Iraq and is now, at age 23, back on campus finishing up the degree he started four years ago. He plans to graduate next spring with a degree in political science and history.

Bauman grew up in Fairview Park, Ohio. His mother was born in Slovenia and his dad in Serbia before moving to the U.S. as teenagers.

“This country was good to them. I wanted to give back, so I joined the Marine Corps,” he said.

He was sent off to boot camp, returning to the Cleveland area on Sept. 10, 2001. After the terrorist attacks he remained on reserve and started at GW in fall 2002. But then in February 2004, he was dispatched to South America and trained with Marines in those countries. He returned to GW in fall 2004, but found out he was going to Iraq that spring.

When he got to Iraq he operated a mobile assault platoon with 15 to 20 soldiers. They dealt with security, held vehicle search points, supported military operations, and hunted down roadside bombs and other explosives, much like Blanchard.

“I was almost killed more times that I can count,” Bauman said. “Pick a weapon, I’ve encountered it.”

Bauman saw many of his fellow Marines die – his unit had the most casualties in Iraq, with approximately 48 men killed or severely wounded, he said – and it was hard for him to deal with that.

“You have to take it in, but you still have a job to do,” he said. “You have to focus on that.”

One of the deadliest days he remembers was when insurgents raided a sniper team’s observation post, killing several men and torturing one.

“They took his body and mutilated it and hung it in a fish market,” he said. “We lost six guys in that raid.”

But he said he thinks most Iraqi citizens are not fighting the American military presence – “Most of them like us,” he said. “Most of them lived through Saddam and are glad he’s gone.”

After the tour in Iraq was over, the Marines had the choice of finishing off their yearlong commitment to Iraq in the U.S. or cutting it short and returning to the reserves. Bauman decided to stay on active duty.

“We were really happy. We got back, and we were alive,” he said. “We were just happy to be back.”

Bauman is still in the Marines, though, and will finish his six-year contract in June.

Would he ever go back to Iraq? “Yes,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a choice.”

For now, he’s looking toward his future – possibly doing intelligence work related to Asia.

“I can go anywhere I want and get a job,” he said. In a little over a year he hopes to have a college degree and a top secret security clearance.

Blanchard sees his future in that light as well. Since leaving Iraq after his injuries, Blanchard has met President Bush three times. He’s met celebrities like pop star Jessica Simpson to Jackass creator Johnny Knoxville, and played golf with CNN founder Ted Turner.

He’s traveled across the country giving speeches at fundraisers and veterans’ events, helping raise $4 million riding his bike across the country. He even got to go to the Super Bowl and was announced at halftime with other war veterans.

“Anything I want to do I can do it, which is almost too good to be true, but I’m gonna go with it,” he said.

The first – and most memorable – time Blanchard met President Bush was when he came to present him with his Purple Heart in his hospital room at Walter Reed.

“I was so nervous – and you have to remember I was on a lot of drugs,” he said. “I was embarrassed by my leg, so I got my mom to put an American flag blanket over it because I wanted to look my best for him.”

Blanchard said he “of course” supports the war in Iraq, but said he could not determine whether the initial intervention was justified.

“I’ve been there, fought and almost died there, and I still don’t know if it’s right or wrong,” he said.

Blanchard said he doesn’t talk to a lot of students here. It’s difficult to communicate with them, he said.

“It’s hard for people to relate to me,” he said. “I’m different.”

Bauman feels the same way. It’s not easy for people at GW to understand him, and he said most don’t want to listen to his stories.

He said: “I’ve killed some people, had a lot of friends die, but it’s not politically correct to talk about it.”

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