Iraq War Vet Finds Support on Campus

Vet support group smooths transition from Iraq to classroom.

February 23, 2009, 4:08 PM

OSHKOSH, Wisc., Feb. 25, 2009 -- Chris Albright doesn't like loud, crowded places. He can't relate to the excitement of screaming fans at sports events, and he can't stand fireworks on the Fourth of July.

All of that reminds the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh sophomore of the sounds of war.

When Albright, 23, came back from the Iraq War in 2007, he felt he needed something else. "I was feeling like a fat body at home. I thought that it would be best for me to go to school," said Albright, who is a business and military science major and a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

From July 2006 to July 2007, Albright was part of a nine-person squad that provided security for convoys throughout Iraq. Adjusting to life as a regular student is a constant challenge.

''Seeing students walking around without a care in the world made me a little bitter,'' Albright said. ''I have been to football games, but I don't like going because I don't have control over the situation. It makes me feel vulnerable.''

Albright found understanding and comfort in a campus veterans' support group created in the fall of 2008. Currently, the group has six members and is led by Paul Clark, a staff counselor at the university's counseling center. ''It really gives each veteran an opportunity to talk about those issues before they were deployed and when they came back, and how their lives have changed,'' Clark said.

Albright's first days as a college student were difficult. ''When I first arrived here for school I had no one to talk to and I was on the edge of almost dropping out,'' he said.

U.S. Army Maj. Robert Wagner understands the challenges returning soldiers face. The ROTC instructor has been in the Army for 25 years and was stationed in Kuwait from 2004 to 2005 during the Iraq War.

''They all have different stuff they have to deal with. Some have jobs and some have families while going to school,'' said Wagner, an assistant professor of military science.

While in Iraq, Albright often thought about his grandparents' farm in Merton, Wis., which is about 28 miles northwest of Milwaukee. ''When we'd be on long missions, I'd have the whole layout of my grandparents' farm completely in my head,'' he said. ''I could just imagine walking through it.''

Those calming images in his mind helped him deal with his life in the Middle East. It also allowed him to spare his family the ugliness of war during his calls back home. ''If you tell them you saw a truck get hit and, all of a sudden, they freak out, and they get that much more worried about you,'' he said.

Life in the war zone was not all dark. His troop would often play games in their Humvee to pass time during long missions.

''We'd play games like the alphabet game and we would start off with A for alligator and B for baboon,'' he recalled. ''And then everyone that would get one wrong would have to do push-ups when we get back.''

When Albright came back home in July of 2007, his family held a big welcome-home bash. ''My uncle lives three houses down from my grandparents at the farm, and he told me, 'There is a keg in the barn for you','' said Albright, who unceremoniously marked his 21st birthday in Iraq with another mission.

Clark, the university's counselor, said the joy veterans feel upon returning home soon gives way to a new reality. ''We're so happy to see them when they return, you throw them a big welcome-home party and, all of a sudden, they're expected to just go back into the flow of civilian life again,'' Clark said.

After getting home Albright tried to get back into a routine. He returned to a job that was held for him at a commercial printing company in Sussex, Wis., where he worked on large machine that emitted loud noises. ''It was just so nerve-wracking it would just trigger things,'' he said. ''You'd hear an explosion, you'd get jumpy, and then people would laugh. You just instantly want to get out of there.''

Albright gave his job three months before he got out. He came to the University of Wisconsin, where he found the veterans' support group. Albright said he was glad to find other veterans who understood what he had gone through.

Now Albright focuses on his studies, and tries to reduce anxiety by working out and talking to other vets. He also relies on a massages therapist to work out the knots in his back and shoulders, the result of wearing 45-pounds of body armor during his war zone days.

Said Albright of the after-effects of the war: "I try to put it out of my mind and live in the now."