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Feature

Jeremiah Peterson surrounded by a group of children in Iraq

U student Jeremiah Peterson with a group of children in Baghdad.

From Iraq to the classroom

U student and Iraq veteran Jeremiah Peterson talks about adjusting to campus life

By Megan Gerst Rocker

From M, fall 2007

Ask Jeremiah Peterson to name one of the biggest differences between student life at the University of Minnesota and patrolling Baghdad's most dangerous sectors, and he'll tell you, "more sitting."

Although his response seems facetious, the notion does have some root in truth. For Peterson, an engaging, gregarious 25-year-old who spent 18 months in a combat zone, adjusting to the slower pace of college life has been a bit of a transition.

And he's not alone. Hundreds of veterans are currently enrolled at the University of Minnesota, and more are returning from the war and re-enrolling every semester.

"It's a unique position to be in," Peterson says, "different even from other adults returning to school after time away. The dropout rate for veterans is extremely high."

That's not very surprising, he continues. "Some of these guys haven't been in school for years--they enlisted and got deployed right after high school, and are now having to relearn how to learn. And think about it: For your average college-aged kid, 'life or death' situation means cramming for a chem final or forgetting you had a term paper due. For a vet ... well, having spent months getting shot at sort of takes the urgency out of studying in Walter Library for nine hours."

Patrolling the 'world's most dangerous road'

As grenadier for Delta Company, Peterson was stationed in one of the deadliest places in Baghdad: Airport Road, or Route Irish. The four-lane, six-mile stretch of road running from central Baghdad to the Iraqi airport functions as a critical supply line for the country. Every day, military convoys businessmen, journalists, and aid workers make the difficult commute.

Called the "world's most dangerous road," Route Irish saw daily--shootings, suicide bombings, sneak attacks, armed kidnappings, and the like. Peterson's primary job was to patrol the road and the surrounding neighborhoods. "When we arrived in Baghdad, something like an average of eight people a day were dying on Route Irish--car bombs, snipings, IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," he says. "Sure, it was a dangerous job, but in large part, war is reactive. Something happens, and you move, move, move. You can't be afraid; you have to be confident you're doing the right thing."

Peterson and company were responsible for "showing a presence" on the road and drawing fire away from unarmed civilians and aid workers in the area. And although death was a part of life on Airport Road, there were a lot of positives for Peterson.

"We got to know a lot of the kids in the neighborhood, interact with them, give them toys and candy. And I loved the guys in my unit. It's a close-knit group of people who understand you in a certain way."

What's more, Peterson continues, it was a chance to really make a difference. "Everyone hears about the danger of Route Irish," he says. "But what you don't hear as much, especially from the media, is how much safer it is now. When we left Baghdad, there was fewer than one death a day on the road. Many days there were none at all."

Still, when his tour ended in March 2005, Peterson was happy to come back home--at least for a time.

There's no place like home ... even home

"I came home, and I was restless," Peterson says. "It wasn't the place I had left. My friends from school had all graduated and moved away, or gotten jobs ... and I wasn't ready to sit still yet, adjust to civilian life." So Peterson packed his bags again, and indulged in one of his passions: traveling.

He spent a month in Asia, visiting Japan and Thailand. He also stayed in hostels across Europe, spent time in Africa and South America.

By fall 2005, Peterson was back in his home in St. Paul and ready to resume his studies.

His decision to come back as a fulltime day student meant that he was in classes with more traditionally aged college students. "Like many vets who come back, I was all alone. I was the oldest in most of my classes, and I had no one my age I could talk with or commiserate with about homework and stuff.

A place for vets

The U also offers the first-of-its-kind Veterans Transition Center in Eddy Hall on the Twin Cities campus. The center, which opened in October 2005 to provide educational and other resources for student veterans, faculty and fellow students, is sponsored by the student group Comfort for Courage. To learn more, visit the Veterans Transition Center.

"But," he continues, "I knew what benefits were afforded to me as a vet and a soldier. I was adaptable and motivated to finish my education."

Peterson realizes that not all of his fellow veterans are as fortunate, which is a main reason he volunteers as president of the Veterans Transition Center (VTC; see sidebar), which is supported by a student group for veterans called Comfort for Courage.

"It's our goal to give people a place where they can find the peer support they need to reintegrate back into the student population," he says. "The VTC lets vets hang out with other people who have gone through the same thing, faced the same challenges. They can feel free to be themselves, and to ask questions like, 'hey, did you have this same experience?' or 'why is it so hard to relate to people right now?'"

Return engagement?

In order to fund his education, Peterson re-enlisted with the Guard this past January, and spends his time training units stateside that are getting ready to deploy. He's signed on for another three years, and although it is unlikely he will be sent back to Iraq, the possibility does exist.

Not one to dwell, however, Peterson is diligently working on designing his Inter-College Program degree in chemistry, business, and pre-professional studies, and estimates that he has about a year and a half left before graduation. He would like to go on to physical therapy school (he currently volunteers at the V.A. hospital in the therapy ward) with the goal of "opening my own practice somewhere up north; running and expanding it until I can hire a partner to take it over; making some wise investments, and then retiring to travel."

So where does Peterson eventually see himself "retiring to travel"?

Right here at home. "I've seen a lot of places, and had some very out there experiences. But it was because of Minnesota that I developed my work ethic and my values. Out of all the places I've been, I love Minnesota the best."

To learn more about individualized degree programs, visit the College of Continuing Education or call 612-624-4000.