Vet finds strength in numbers at college

By Tiffanie Reynolds |

Sitting in class, Adam Bagby watches a video about counter-terrorism and Iraq projected at the front of the room. He hears gunshots and suddenly he’s there, following wires up the stairs of an abandoned building to a box at the top. Gently removing rubble around it, he finds that it is packed with C-4 explosives.

Blinking, he’s back in the classroom, and the movie has jumped a few minutes ahead. Other students around him sit slumped in their desks watching, a few jotting down notes. It was another flashback, and he picks up his pen to try to catch up with the information he’s missed.

“It’s created my personality, I’d like to say,” said the veteran of the Iraq war. “Because, in the Army, in Iraq, to be 100 percent honest, you’re going to have experiences that it’s just inevitable, and, in the civilian side, if you’re lucky, you’ll never have to come across anything remotely close to what we deal with.”

Bagby is one of the 58 percent of veterans nationwide who are going to a 4-year private or public college. Many have to deal with issues from flashbacks to post-traumatic stress syndrome. They have to cope with what years of combat have left behind while still trying to relate to peers that, to them, are living on an entirely different maturity level.

Drawing from his own experiences, Bagby has now created the Flagler College Veterans Group to bring more veterans on campus together. Being able to connect with others helped relieve the stress and isolation he was feeling in college, and made his goals a little more easy to accomplish.

Lessons from the battlefield
Bagby, a graduating senior with a major in history and a minor in criminology, served in the U.S. Army for 10 years. Enlisting in July 2001, he served in places like Germany and New York. But it was his year in Iraq that affected him the most.

He enlisted as a military police office. But it was during his time working in Germany that the Army was really training him for war. In March 2003, he became part of the initial invasion into Iraq. He completed 280 missions that year, from rough convoy security to training the Iraqi Police Force after Saddam Hussein was killed.

“What really was an eye-opening experience for me … was this car on the side of the road and it was on fire and out from the car I could see this arm hanging out from the side of the car with this AK-47 hanging off of it — from the arm. And that was like, ‘OK, this is what it’s going to be,’ ” he said.

It is memories like that one that followed him into civilian life. Relieved of active duty in May 2006, he moved to Florida and enrolled in St. Johns River State College in 2010, transferring to Flagler the next year.

On top of class assignments, he deals with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks, remembering moments of combat he subconsciously forgot. While he completed 280 missions in Iraq, he only remembers about 10.

“It’ll distract me,” he said. “I’ll have to realize I’m in a flashback and I’ll have to come back to, and then the teacher would have had this whole discussion and I wouldn’t know what she was talking about.”

There are little things, too. In the classroom, he prefers sitting in the back of the room so he can watch everything in front of him. It’s also the reason why he isn’t comfortable in big crowds or having his back turned to people he doesn’t know very well.

“I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’m probably never going to feel at ease ever. Being in combat scenario after combat scenario after combat scenario, missions on end. We had 72 hour shifts sometimes, where you got like no sleep, constantly mortared on a nightly basis,” he said.

He is not the only one. Student veterans ages 24-29 feel they are supported by other students 5.1 percent less than their peers, according to the 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement, and only 19 percent of veterans ages 25-34 graduate with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fighting for each other

Despite all of his obstacles, Bagby found other student veterans on campus. By helping each other figure out financial aid and classes, as well as swap stories, their college experience became a little more easy to handle. It’s through this support and understanding that he was inspired to create the Veterans Special Interest Group.

Working with Dr. John Diviney, a professor and faculty adviser for the group, Bagby came up with a constitution and statement of purpose in the fall. They held their first meeting in January.

“This is not just for veterans,” he said. “This is for anybody that has any interest on what veterans do. Any people that have family that are veterans, any students that have any family oversees or any family in the military in general.”

Diviney, who also served for 20 years in infantry and special forces, strives for the group to become a center point for student veterans getting back into civilian life. It is this emotional distance that he has noticed in many veterans in his classes.

“When I took a look at a lot of the young men that were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw that a lot of them were coming back not, I guess you would call totally whole,” he said. “They had been severely wounded either physically or mentally, and, in many cases, they were being sent over on multiple deployments.”

The group is also being recognized by Veterans of Foreign Wars, a national organization for veterans. Rev. Al Deome, chaplin of the VFW post in St. Augustine, is working with the Flagler organization, as well as the veterans group at St. Johns River State College, to become official branches of the St. Augustine post. By the VFW including them as part of their organization, Deome hopes that this will start to acknowledge student veterans as a demographic, as more are going to college on the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

“It’s hard for a veteran to ask for help,” he said. “It’s hard for a veteran to socialize and trust people. And that’s what this group does. It brings together veterans and establishes civilian bonds, if you will.”

Walking with the scars

Bagby knows that he can’t forget the memories and the loss he experienced while in the Army, but he views life as one big challenge because of it. That challenge now consists of an education, a job and a wife, instead of just war and survival.

“You do what you can,” he said. “You do the best you can with what you have, and that’s what we did in Iraq. Now, in civilian life, I’m still trying to do the best I can with what I have. And it is what it is.”

Read about a Jacksonville farm helping disabled vets. >>Click here

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