Cover Stories
Coming Home: In the transition from combat to classroom, Towson University serves those who have served
Marine Corps insignia Plus: One TU alumnus' story from the front lines of Iraq


As Leif Collins ’10 emerged from the gate at BWI airport in 2006, he carried far more on his shoulders than the weight of his Army-issued rucksack.

Just 24 hours earlier, Collins had been on the ground in Iraq. It was his second deployment in a war that had been raging for nearly three years. But now, he found himself suddenly transported home—a surreal return to a place where the Green Zone was a Newsweek infographic and IEDs disappeared simply by turning off the TV.

That night, he struggled to have a conversation with his fiancée and family. They didn’t know what to ask. He didn’t know what to say.

“I felt detached,” recalls Collins. “How could I explain my daily life in a way that anyone could ever understand? I didn’t talk much at first.”


Quote: The vets need a place where people understand them and know what they're going through. -Patrick Young '10, coordinator of veterans services

 

In the year following his discharge, Collins couldn’t completely shake the culture shock of reentry. His decision to attend community college in 2007 only brought more barriers.

“It was my first experience since Iraq where I was dealing with numerous people every day—people who were much younger than me,” he says. “It was hard to relate to them, and I harbored a lot of resentment about it. I was constantly agitated.”

But something changed for Collins in 2008 when he transferred to Towson. Veterans were flocking to the university and this vibrant community started to coalesce. He soon met other vets on campus who shared his experience. It made all the difference.

Kelli Clark in Iraq Patrick Young in Iraq Patrick Young in Iraq
Thanks in part to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the number of college-bound students surged in the past decade. But after harrowing experiences in combat, some student vets face obstacles that their civilian counterparts do not.

Right before Collins’ eyes, Towson was becoming one of the most forward thinking, veteran-friendly campuses in the region—possibly even in the country.

TOUGH TRANSITIONS

The transition from military to civilian life isn’t easy. It’s even tougher on a college campus. The jarring shift from a highly regimented, always-alert lifestyle can leave veterans feeling directionless and overwhelmed in the civilian world. And differences in experience and maturity levels create a rift between vets and traditional students.

“At a minimum, vets who enter college as freshmen will be four years older than traditional freshmen,” explains Jon Vranek, a TU senior and non-combat Air Force veteran who served in Iraq. Factor in the responsibilities of military life and the stresses of combat, he adds, and the maturity gap can seem insurmountable.

“Most vets have adjustment issues in college,” Vranek says. “In the military, you might have been in charge of millions of dollars of equipment and had 10 guys working under you. Then you come to college and you’re surrounded by students who are younger and less experienced. And for most of them, it’s just been a few months since they were in a classroom. For you, it might have been five or 10 years.”

The list of stressors for vets goes on. Undeveloped or out-of-practice study skills cause serious challenges to academic success. Insensitivity about the military from classmates leaves vets feeling ostracized. The nexus of academy and bureaucracy can bring even more anxiety for vets who are habituated to the black-and-white military command structure. And for combat vets, harrowing experiences in battle often bring insight and perspective not shared by other students.

The concerns of traditional students, says Collins, “can seem frivolous.” He recalls men in his unit who saw the Army as their way of earning the privilege to one day attend college. They didn’t all return home.

“When classmates would complain about writing three pages or finding a parking space nearby, it would drive me nuts,” he says. “I’d think about guys who gave their lives for the chance to be in that seat, and the sacrifices that no one will ever know about. It bothered me a lot.”

‘A SAFE SPACE’

Towson opened its Veterans Center in 2010, becoming the first university in Maryland to establish such a resource.

But give Tracy Miller ’93 M.S., program manager for academic advising at TU, credit for its genesis. Miller’s son, Marine Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski, was killed in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004. The tragedy mobilized Miller, who helped initiate a 2006 college fair aimed at assisting veterans who wanted to return to school. She understood their issues.

Students in Vet Center

“When I realized there was nothing I could do for Nick, I wanted to do anything I could to support the ones who did come back,” she says. “The military makes them different from other students—more driven but also isolated. They need a place to call their own.”

The Veterans Center was a natural outgrowth, created as a sanctuary for veterans on campus. So naturally, stepping inside is a little like entering another world.

Tucked away in an L-shaped former classroom on the ground floor of the Psychology Building, the center is equal parts resource and refuge. Flags from each of the armed services flank the doorway. Uncle Sam points a stern finger from the wall, though the iconic “I Want You” tagline has been replaced with a more colorful, not-safe-for-print variant. In the center of the room, two Ravens-purple couches—donated from an M&T Bank Stadium suite—divide the space.

Student using computer in Vet Center Package Drive in Vet Center
Computer workstations are available to student vets in the Veterans Center (top). The center coordinates with the Veterans Student Group to coordinate a number of service events each year, including a care package drive for troops oversees (bottom).

You’re equally likely to find vets quietly tapping away on the center’s computers or engaged in boisterous conversation—serious war stories and eccentric parodies of old drill instructors performed in equal measure.

The center is also home base for the Veterans Student Group, an SGA-sponsored student organization that serves as a social and service outlet for the vet community. The group engages veterans with programs such as an annual care-package drive for troops overseas and a veteran-sponsored revitalization of Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood.

The center’s coordinator, Patrick Young ’10, oversees the operation. A former Marine and combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Young was one of the founding members of the Veterans Students Group in 2008. When the university opened the search for a full-time veteran services coordinator, his fellow vets urged him to apply.

“They pretty much threatened to make my life hell if I didn’t go after the job,” he jokes. His experience as a modern combat vet, and his standing rapport with many in the TU veteran community, made him the perfect choice.

Young serves as a first point of contact for vets with questions about VA benefits, the application and admissions process, and any reentry issues that arise. He keeps the center running smoothly, ensuring it serves as an educational resource and—perhaps even more significant—a space for vets to unwind.

“It’s important to let folks blow off steam here. The vets need a place where people understand them and know what they’re going through,” he says, “especially as the community gets larger and larger.”

Towson’s veteran population was about 100 in 2006. Today, that number has more than tripled and continues to rise. National factors such as the end of combat operations in Iraq and the inception of the Post-9/11 GI Bill—which amounts to a full scholarship for service members—are major contributors to the enrollment uptick. But thanks to the work of Young and other vets, Towson is also positioned as a model of veteran services on campus. And word is getting out.

Kellie Clark, an Army reservist studying computer science, chose Towson specifically because she’d heard about the Veterans Center. Formerly deployed to Iraq as an intelligence analyst, she spent months poring over scraps of data—intercepted signals, communications, imagery—to locate and capture suspected terrorists. Immediately after leaving active duty, she felt frustration and isolation. She sought out the Veterans Center for support, and now serves as president of the Veterans Student Group.

“When you’re in the military, you’re in it 24 hours a day, every day. It’s a lifestyle. So when you leave the service, you’re left with this hole,” she says. “The Veterans Center and Veterans Student Group help fill that hole. It’s a safe space for us.”

Young concurs. “When you’re not connecting with the campus, it’s too easy to let one stupid misunderstanding with a classmate ruin your day—one insensitive question or negative comment about the military can be all it takes. But at the Veterans Center, you can come in and vent to people who’ve had the same experiences, and then you’re laughing it off.”

“It’s not just yours to bear anymore,” he says. “It’s all of ours.”



Tip Of The Spear: One TU alumnus' story from the front lines of Iraq

 

Leif Collins ‘10 was among the first American soldiers in Iraq in 2003. He’d go on to serve two combat tours, his second as part of the military’s controversial stop-loss program.

A combat engineer with the Army 3rd Infantry Division, his job during the initial invasion was to keep ahead of the charge—in front of the infantry, the tanks, everyone—to clear whatever obstacles blocked the path to Baghdad.

“That first push was indescribable,” he says. “Out in front of everything, it was all lights and noise.”


In the dark moments of his second tour, Collins often thought of the Iraqi family who treated him as a son in the summer of 2003.

 

His unit marched 300 miles from Kuwait to the Iraqi capital in just 21 days. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was swift and decisive. So swift, in fact, that Collins’ unit wasn’t properly equipped when the invasion gave way to the security duty that would define the war for years to come.


PHOTO GALLERY: Images from Iraq
Collins pictured with a fellow soldier while destroying an enemy munitions depot in Nasiriyah, Iraq in March 2003. As an Army combat engineer, Collins cleared explosives and other obstructions from the path of advancing troops during the initial invasion. The view from Collins’ “front door” during his first tour in Iraq. Shades, like the one to the left, were the soldiers’ only shelter during the first few months of the war. Collins sits with the family that looked after him in their village in the summer of 2003. He poses in the patriarch’s keffiyeh headdress at the family’s insistence—a symbol of their trust and respect. Just months from his discharge date, Collins was redeployed for a second tour in Iraq as part of the Army’s controversial stop-loss program. Here he is pictured with his unit at Forward Operating Base Warhorse in 2005. Collins graduated from Towson University in 2010. He is pictured here with wife Megan and daughter Makaila.

“My unit was worn down—lost weight, broken equipment,” he says. “We lived in the dirt along the outskirts of Baghdad. My bed was a piece of plywood on cinder blocks. We didn’t have tents so we pulled some tarps off the back of a tractor trailer. And obviously tarps don’t do a damn thing against enemy fire, which came in pretty much every night.”

Collins recalls the Iraqi family that looked after him in those early days of the war. Hussein’s forces had come to the village just before the Americans arrived, attempting to impress the men and boys into service against Coalition forces. The family’s seven sons resisted. Six were executed on site. One was arrested.

“Despite their mourning,” says Collins, “this family invited me into their home. They gave me tea and fresh bread every day.” He and the family soon formed a close relationship. And when their only remaining son eventually made it home, bearing terrible scars as evidence of his brutal torture in an Iraqi prison, he joined Collins on patrols in the village.

When Collins was redeployed in 2005, the atmosphere had changed dramatically. By then, the word “quagmire” was embedded in public discourse of the conflict, and monthly troop casualties hit triple digits.

“Oh yeah, it sucked,” he chuckles. “I was supposed to be getting out in a few months, and instead they extended my service by a year. It was devastating.”

Faced with another long year in the desert, Collins stepped up to the challenge. He made sergeant. He had men reporting to him. But despite his attempts to make the best of a bad situation, Iraq was a changed place.

“Night and day difference,” he says. “The infrastructure seemed a little better. We had beds and air conditioning. But the whole relationship with the people had crumbled. We were no longer allowed informal contact with the population—instead we were sequestered behind walls on base. We felt more like outsiders.”

In the dark moments of his second tour—which Collins admits were frequent—he often thought of the Iraqi family who had treated him as a son in the summer of 2003. In a war with unclear objectives and no end in sight, he took heart in the resilience of a family that lost so much, and still had more to give.

He doesn’t know what became of them after his unit left Baghdad. He probably never will. “I’ll never forget what they did,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing you always keep with you.”

By Dan Fox. Photos by veterans and Kanji Takeno.


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