Student-soldiers get education in Iraq

Sun, Oct 21, 2007 (12:56 p.m.)

They learned snippets of Arabic and Swahili in Iraq. They learned about roadside bombs and snipers. And how kind people can be to one another, and how ugly. They learned they are stronger than they believed.

As peers at home studied calculus and read Shakespeare, these student-soldiers became disciples of life. Away from college professors and textbooks, their perceptions of the world were shaped by the threat of death and violence, by the spirit of resilience some people manage to maintain in a war zone.

More than 500 students at UNLV and about 750 at the College of Southern Nevada - who either served in the military or are dependents of veterans - are using GI Bill money to attend school this fall.

They are students like Reuben D'Silva, 22, and Marcos Ibarra, 21, Marine Corps reservists who served in Iraq earlier this year and plan to continue coursework at UNLV - Ibarra this spring, D'Silva after he is released from a San Diego hospital.

D'Silva and Ibarra follow Jennifer Kramer, 25, a recent UNLV graduate who served in Iraq two years earlier, and Dante Barnwell, 23, who after two tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine is studying at the College of Southern Nevada.

The world does not wait for you to come home when you go to war. Time flies relentlessly. When you return, you find much has changed. Most of your friends have graduated, started careers while you were gone.

Back in Las Vegas in spring 2005 after about a year in Iraq, Jennifer Kramer, an Army reservist, just wanted to finish her studies. "I didn't want to be Jenny from Iraq forever," she said. "I was just eager to get back to what I had been wanting to do the whole time I was gone, which was coming back, finishing my degree."

Though many of Kramer's friends had entered the working world while she was away, her journey overseas wasn't a setback.

Iraq gave her insight into what life is like in another country and taught her how ugly people can be toward one another. She saw men lying dead in the streets, bombs going off, charred bodies frozen in burned-out cars.

Back at UNLV, Kramer found that many classmates were "people who wouldn't have any comprehension of anything going on in the world that didn't involve MySpace or football parties every Friday night."

In Iraq, Kramer drove and gunned aboard supply trucks hauling cargo ranging from underwear and T-shirts to confiscated rocket-propelled grenades. Far from Las Vegas, she dreamed of home, yearned for school.

She can't predict where she'll be in 10 years, but she knows she's stronger, more ambitious, than she was five years ago. Having graduated in May with a degree in communications, she now works in the advertising department of a gaming company.

"I just think about how when I was over there I was just so eager to get back and start my life. And now that I have the opportunity, I should just do that," Kramer said. "If I'm having a bad day, I try to remember how it could be much worse."

The semester before you are deployed, you will find it difficult to concentrate. You will become apprehensive as the end of the term nears and , along with it, the prospect of war.

Reuben D'Silva and Marcos Ibarra, who met in training, spent fall 2006 at UNLV, both knowing they would head to Iraq in February. Despite being frightened, D'Silva did well in education and history classes while working part time at Taco Bell and Charlotte Russe.

Ibarra was busy, with a girlfriend and a full-time job bussing tables on the Strip. He was also active in a fraternity. Though he liked school, his grades dropped.

"I couldn't really focus because I knew it was drawing to a close," he said, "and I knew it was coming near to the time we had to leave."

In Iraq, D'Silva and Ibarra drove and gunned aboard armored trucks, seeing and learning things they wouldn't have seen and learned at home. In place of deadlines and lectures, they faced the prospect of snipers and improvised explosives. Instead of pens and paper, they carried 60 pounds of gear and rifles, enduring the Iraqi desert's 120-degree heat.

D'Silva and Ibarra killed time playing a game called "What you know about," in which they asked fellow Vegas Marines what they recalled about Hamburger Mary's, about JB King on 98.5 FM, about anything Vegas.

"We'd sit around and talk a lot," D'Silva said. "We'd have philosophical debates. About life, about girls and love."

D'Silva learned basic words in Swahili from Ugandan soldiers on base. He lived for Wednesdays, when the chow hall served steak and seafood. He tried lobster for the first time in his life in Iraq.

One night in early June, a sniper's bullet tore through D'Silva's left forearm, leaving a crater of mangled flesh the size of a soda can. It shattered his bone, damaged his muscles, messed up his radial nerve.

The events of that night helped drive home the notion that the Marines who ride beside you on daylong convoys are not just friends. They are brothers. D'Silva could have lost his arm had fellow Marines not helped stop the bleeding, he said.

The relationships D'Silva formed in war will be lifelong, he says: "The only guys that really get me are the guys that I went to Iraq with."

Said Ibarra, who was on the same convoy but in another truck that day: "We were really willing to put our lives on the line of fire for any of our fellow Marines. And I mean that. The day D'Silva was shot, everyone was just really upset. We wished we could've killed somebody, that's how upset we were."

Back in the United States, in the first days home, the world seemed chaotic, Ibarra said. In a war zone your superior tells you what to do, where to go, when to sleep. At home, everything is a choice.

And choice is good, Ibarra says. He has decided he will be a better student. He wants to be a leader , not a follower, and plans to go to law school so he can work in politics, make decisions.

Though he could be redeployed, his focus is on life at home. He married a UNLV classmate on Oct. 12.

Iraq taught Ibarra to appreciate the simple things - air conditioning, fast food, a nice bed in which to sleep. On convoy routes, Ibarra remembers, he would see boys walking along the road with flocks of sheep, without water, without shoes.

D'Silva aspires, as he did before he left for Iraq, to be a high school history teacher. He'll be able to share with young students his eyewitness account of a war they will otherwise learn about from textbooks, he said.

D'Silva is anxious to return to UNLV, but he's not looking forward to the questions other students ask: Did you ever kill anybody? Did you know anybody who got killed?

His immediate concern is his arm. He's in therapy, trying to develop more strength and a broader range of motion. He can "kind of tie his shoes" now.

Being in Iraq bolstered his confidence and positive outlook - "I can do more things," he said. "Nothing's impossible." At the hospital where he's staying, he sees the fortune in his bad luck.

"There's guys here that are missing both legs, arms, a lot of amputees here," he says. "A lot of guys who have brain damage from getting blown up by IEDs, roadside bombs. They had one guy in here that had been shot in the face, but he's alive. I'm in pretty good shape. I can walk, I can talk, I can get around pretty good."

So it's over for now. You signed the contract, trained, went from a classroom into a combat zone, saw poverty, entered another world.

You come home to find much has changed. But in the end, you discover, so have you.

At war overseas you will learn about other cultures, other places. In the process you will learn about yourself, appreciating more what you have as you discover what people don't have in a combat zone.

Dante Barnwell's first round in Iraq was at the start of the war. He said his unit, one of the first to enter the country, made its way "from the bottom of Iraq all the way to Babylon." He doesn't like to elaborate beyond that.

On his second tour, from 2004 to 2005, Barnwell conducted raids and went on patrols, talked to everyday Iraqis.

"They're happy people," he said. "They cherish their families a lot."

Of how some Iraqis perceived Marines, Barnwell said: "They think we're indestructible - even the smallest of us."

Barnwell felt like he was helping to make history as he watched voters laugh and smile during legislative elections that friends at home knew only through newspaper snapshots of Iraqis waving fingers dipped in purple ink.

By March 2005, when he headed back to the United States, he knew basic phrases in Arabic: Stop. Put down your weapon. Are you OK? Do you need help?

"I learned so much over there," he says. "One: You need to be thankful you're an American and you have a choice." A choice to get up in the morning, a choice to stay home from work, a choice to live in peace.

"I learned to appreciate a lot of things, my family, my time on Earth," he says. "Nobody promises you tomorrow."

Barnwell went to boot camp in June 2002, days after he graduated from high school.

Now an adult, he is studying for a computer science degree at CSN. School has been his focus since June 16, 2006, the day his service commitment ended - "the day I had done everything I had set my mind to do in the Marine Corps."

He takes his studies more seriously than he would have had he not joined the military: "I'm not out at the clubs on the weekend , drinking, partying like a rockstar."

Charlotte Hsu can be reached at 259-8813 or at [email protected]

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