photo courtesy of Joshua Dobson

Service Learning

War soldiers make transition to university life
— by Brian J. Bowe

Sometimes, sudden noises can bring Grand Valley student Gwen Higby’s mind rocketing back to her time as a soldier in Iraq. Like the time she was in class and someone accidentally dropped a textbook. The loud crack of the book slamming onto the floor stopped her cold.

“I just had to remind myself ‘OK, I’m alive, I’m here, I’m in school. I’m not in that situation anymore,’” Higby said. “You just have to kind of mentally push yourself through that.”

Higby, 25, is a cell and molecular biology major, and she’s one of a growing number of current Grand Valley students who are returning to college after fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“When I initially got back, I was really sensitive to my environment,” Higby said. “I think everybody has a little of something to adjust to. Personally, I think the transition was harder than I expected, but it wasn’t one of the most extreme cases.”

Higby, who hails from Grand Rapids, joined the Army in June 1999, fresh out of high school. “The big thing was money for college,” she said.

She was stationed in Germany and Texas, and her time was nearly up when the war in Iraq started. A stop-loss order kept her on active duty. Higby served in Iraq from March to September 2003. While there, she was in places like Baghdad, Tikrit and Kirkuk.

“At first it was quite nerve-wracking,” Higby said. “At the time I went over, it was still relatively early on in the war, so they still had strong beliefs in the existence of weapons of mass destruction.”

War is unpredictable by nature, Higby acknowledged, but she added that this situation seemed excessively so.

“Attacks were sporadic,” Higby said, adding that it was rare for the fight to be a traditional battle between two armies. “It was more like, you’re sitting around doing your normal day-to-day things and all of a sudden they’d lob a mortar into your perimeter. Or you’re driving down the road and all of a sudden somebody shoots a RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] at your truck.”

She continued: “It was something intelligence couldn’t get a hold of because it was just one or two people — who knows where they came from — coming and doing things like that.

Joshua Dobson gives a presentation during Student Scholarship Day in April. An Iraq War veteran, Dobson served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. photo by Adam Bird

Watching history in the making

Another Grand Valley veteran, Joshua Dobson, understands the intricacies of intelligence work. Dobson served as an analyst in the Military Intelligence Corps, so when he talks about his service in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he is somewhat circumspect: “While I was down there, I dealt mainly with ... let’s see, what can I say?”

Dobson joined the Army Reserves in December 2000. “I joined well aware that I could be deployed and go to war at some point, but there was no war going on that I thought I could be deployed to,” he said.

That all changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Dobson was stationed at the Guantanamo Bay base that houses detainees from the war on terrorism. “I got shipped home for two days to see my family, and then got shipped over to New Jersey for a month for a train-up, and then down to Guantanamo Bay, where I spent 14 months,” Dobson said.

“I dealt mainly with actions within the camp, dealing with the day-to-day running of the camp and collecting intelligence on the people in the camp. There were riots being held. It was my job to break down communications and see where the orders for these riots were coming from. We were trying to single out leadership within the camp.”

To that end, Dobson said he helped create a computerized tracking system for the guards to input observations of detainee activities.

Joshua Dobson, center, is pictured with friends at a Military Christmas Ball in December 2003.
photo courtesy of Joshua Dobson

“That gave us a large database to look for patterns and things of that nature so we could start to single out the leadership. Once we singled them out we removed them and then the riots happened less frequently. It was more unorganized type stuff,” Dobson said.

Dobson said he had a sense that he was present as history was being made.

“Every day when we got done with work, we’d go watch the news and we’d see on CNN things we had worked on the previous day. It was real exciting,” Dobson said. For example, once he was awakened at 2 a.m. by a phone call from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, requesting information for a meeting he was having the next day with the ambassador from Italy about Italian citizens being held at Guantanamo Bay. That meeting ended up being the top news story the next day.

The Guantanamo Bay facility has gained a level of infamy, with some people viewing it as a symbol of the Bush administration’s disregard for human rights. But Dobson said he has no firsthand knowledge of torture happening there.

“I didn’t see it at all — I didn't even hear of it taking place, if it was taking place,” Dobson said. “People always talk bad about what we’re doing, but it’s like, ‘You haven’t seen the other side of it.’”

Dobson said he hasn’t faced the same kind of readjustment that Higby has.

“My deployment wasn’t in a hostile zone,” he said. “We worked long, hard days, six days a week from 7 in the morning to 6 at night — but we weren’t carrying rifles every day. We weren’t getting bullets shot at us. We didn’t deal with that kind of stress.”

Dobson, who hails from Richmond, near Port Huron, came to Grand Valley for its International Relations department. He graduated in April, but is staying on at GVSU to pursue an MBA in the Seidman College of Business.

Gwen Higby, shown here at the VFW Creston Post 3023 in Grand Rapids, has adjusted to college life after serving in Iraq.
photo by Courtney Newbauer

Grappling with public opinion

Allendale native Charles Singer, 26, joined the Navy after high school after he was accepted into a program in nuclear engineering for submarines and aircraft carriers. He finished his training on September 7, 2001. His family helped him pack up that weekend, and they were driving home to Michigan for his leave. They were in Pennsylvania when they heard about the September 11 attacks.

“I’d never been so scared in my life. I had just got done with my training, just got my orders to my first ship, and this is all happening,” Singer said. He called the command when he got home and found that his aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, was being deployed immediately. He was flown to the carrier when his leave was up.

Singer’s ship served three tours — two in the Middle East, and one around North Korea. When his active duty was over, he decided to return to Allendale and study engineering at Grand Valley. He wants to be a mechanical engineer and work on the design and construction of naval ships.

“I’m kind of excited now to be back home and be back around friends and family again. I’m not trying to escape,” Singer said.

Singer said the biggest adjustment for him was going from the regimented discipline of military life to the more relaxed atmosphere of university life.

“I went from the strict military kind of life, where you have a certain way of acting, to having to readjust to the way the classroom atmosphere was,” Singer said. “Sometimes you have kids who sleep in the back of class. That stuff never could happen in the military. I would get frustrated. I was used to an atmosphere where everybody has to have everything done as soon as possible and it has to be done perfectly.”

The war in Iraq has become increasingly controversial, and public opposition has become more pronounced. Singer said he was surprised to hear the public sentiment against the war in Iraq when he returned home

Gwen Higby stands in front of the Iraqi flag at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq.
photo courtesy of Gwen Higby

“When you’re out there, it seemed like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing good.’ They try to filter the information coming to the ship, so for the most part, you feel like everybody’s proud of what you’re doing,” Singer said. “When you first get back and you find all this stuff going on, it is kind of disheartening.”

Complicating matters have been things like the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

“That’s even worse, because we can’t say we’re fighting these evil terrorists when here we are breaking all these international laws on prisoners of war, or whatever,” Singer said.

Dobson said he occasionally runs into opposition from people when they find out he served at Guantanamo Bay.

“Sometimes people will give me a dirty look, especially when they talk about terrorism or torture,” Dobson said.

Higby said there hasn’t been any noticeable backlash against service members on campus.

“I think, nowadays, things are a lot more about supporting the people rather than the cause. I haven’t received a lot of resistance against being a member of the military, which is good. I work at the VFW and the Vietnam vets there, they came back from the war and were called baby killers and things like that. In our situation, I’ve never experienced anything like that. I know there are some people who dislike members of the military, but usually they keep that to themselves.”

There’s a newly formed student organization called the Armed Forces Association, of which Higby, Dobson and Singer are all members.

“We want to be a support group for those who are deployed, or who might be deployed, or who are service members, and also a support group for their families,” Higby said.

The group’s adviser, assistant maintenance supervisor Jeff Marcinkowski, served in the Navy from 1976-80. After spending two years in the Navy Reserves, he entered the Coast Guard Reserves in 1983 and still serves today. While he never served in a combat zone himself, he said he was motivated to help the association out of the common bond shared by military veterans.

“It doesn’t make a difference — age or branch — you help out,” he said, adding that the group has been beneficial for returning vets. “The transition to college or any other place is difficult, and they may not outwardly express that difficulty. I think what this group is all about is helping people through that transition.”

Page last modified July 29, 2011