From Combat to College



Andrew Napier was at a bar with friends when one friend told the group that Napier had just returned from combat in Iraq. A woman in the group responded by saying, “Oh, is … that still going on?”

Napier, a UK biology student, told his bar story during an interview for the UK’s Nunn Center for Oral History on Jan. 28.  In the interview, Napier said that returning home after his service in Iraq made him feel “like nobody even realized that I was even gone.” The Nunn Center’s interest in hearing him tell his story made him feel differently.

“It’s awesome to hear that anybody even cares what’s happening, you know?” Napier said in his interview.

Napier’s interview is one of seven that have been made available online in video format as part of an ongoing project. The Nunn Center’s “From Combat to Kentucky” project gives veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan now attending UK a chance to record their military stories. During the interviews, which typically last about two hours, student-veterans talk about why they decided to go into the military, and describe their boot camp, deployment, and homecoming experiences.

The project fits into the Nunn Center’s history. The Center has been recording veteran stories since 1973 and has records from World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans. “You aren’t instantly drawn when you are thinking about oral history to say, ‘Hey, we should interview a 23, 24-year old,’” said Doug Boyd, director of the Nunn Center, “but the advantage of getting their stories now is they are really fresh.”

Boyd said that although the project has historical importance, “There is also the social importance of giving these veterans a voice and connecting them to the outside world.”

Stephanie Murphy, a graduate student in the Physician’s Assistant program at UK is another veteran who told her story to the Nunn Center.

“I’m glad one day my kids will read my history,” Murphy said.

Murphy got special permission to enter the army reserves only a few days after her 17th birthday, when her brother’s recruiters saw her test scores and encouraged her to enlist. She served in Iraq from April to October of 2003 as a surgical technician who assisted surgeons in military zones. In Iraq, Murphy’s job  was to keep critical patients alive so they could make it to hospitals. “We only saw people for life or limb,” she explained.

Murphy went from saving lives in Iraq to attending classes in Kentucky. “College life is just different for me,” Murphy said. She said that since returning home she has a new appreciation for simple things that she did not always have in Iraq, like showers

“It frustrates you when you hear complaining about little things,” Murphy said. “Students don’t appreciate the people in their lives.”

Murphy’s frustration with the pettiness of her fellow students is echoed by Napier. In his online interview, Napier mentioned the flippancy and lack of respect shown by students during classes.

Boyd hinted at this gap between student- veterans and other students as well. “They [student veterans] aren’t coming back like typical students,” Boyd said. “These people are coming back intellectually wise beyond their years.” Boyd said the students in the project are driven and “hyper-committed” to academics.

They are also all dealing with the transition from a career to classes.

“What is it like to go to class when a year ago you were operating million dollar equipment?” Boyd said. The answer to Boyd’s rhetorical question is different for each of the student veterans at UK.

One goal of the “From Combat to Kentucky” project is to evaluate any needs for improvement in UK’s attempts to help veterans transition into the college environment. Boyd said that, in general, the student-veteran feedback has been positive. The Veteran’s Resource Center, which helped locate student veterans for the interviews, also helps to welcome veterans to UK.

Tony Dotson, coordinator of the UK Veteran Resource Center, estimates that there are 400 student veterans at UK, though the University only began tracking veteran status this year. He said that a waived application fee, married housing for student veterans, and a new transition course are some of the services UK offers. The Center also works with the Disabilities Resource Center to assist with medical concerns.

“We have a growing number of veterans with physical disabilities,” Dotson said, “And I expect we’ll see more.” Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, a disorder which can cause headaches and concentration or memory issues, is a problem with many UK student veterans, Dotson said.

Dotson said the Nunn Center’s project has been helpful on an emotional level for the interviewees. “These young veterans got to sit down and unload this burden they’ve been carrying,” Boyd said. Dotson describes the process of being interviewed by a fellow student veteran as being “therapeutic.”

Interviews are currently on hold while the Nunn Center looks for a new student to conduct them.  “I’m committed to using other veterans as interviewers,” Boyd said. He believes that interviewees feel more comfortable when they are interviewed by someone with the similar age and background. In the mean time, the center is editing several more interviews which have not yet been put online.

The “From Combat to Kentucky” project is part of a bigger vision for Kentucky veterans. “The idea is to turn this into a statewide project,” said Boyd.  The Nunn Center invented new technology for the online interviews. A searchable transcript of the interview allows readers to click on a certain portion of the transcript and watch the moment it occurred in the video.

Dotson said he has heard little feedback from the student veterans he serves concerning last Wednesday’s withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. Student-veterans typically keep their opinions to themselves “knowing they’re in a conservative state, but on liberal territory,” Dotson said.  He said he does know, however, that student veterans want to know that their service was “noble, necessary and appreciated.”

Each interview takes a good deal of time for both the Nunn Center and the student veteran. “It hasn’t been easy,” Boyd said. But he believes the effort is worth it. “It’s an honor to get to interact with these individuals,” Boyd said. “We have hundreds walking across campus right now.”