UCI War Veterans and Civilians Discuss War-Time Experiences

UC Irvine war veterans and civilians who have experienced conflict gathered to give a talk on their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan on Thursday, Feb. 19.
UCI’s international studies program, in cooperation with the UCI Veteran’s Student Union and Middle Eastern Studies Student Initiative (MESSI), helped to make this talk possible. Discussion leaders gave brief individual introductions and moved quickly into a question and answer session.
Ilana Zelener, a second-year student and member of MESSI, discussed her experiences as a civilian in Israel and the terror that the country’s people must go through on a daily basis.
“People have 15-45 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. You think, ‘Am I risking my life to go to the grocery store?’ You hear the siren and you stop. You don’t worry about turning off the stove. You hear the sound of the explosion and you know that it didn’t hit you – and you forget for a couple seconds that that means it hit someone else,” Zelener said.
In response to a question regarding the mentality on the ground for the justification of the war, David Curry, a third-year sociology major who served in the U.S. Marines immediately following his graduation from high school, discussed the complicated reasoning behind going into a war and his own change in opinion on the topic.
“At the time we thought we were fighting to stop the war on terrorism, but one of the first objectives was to secure the oil rigs. I didn’t really think to question it, but I remember getting out after they caught [Donald] Rumsfeld with his pants down. I realized there are a bunch of reasons to go to war and you have to be able to justify it. You want to be able to satisfy the guy in Kansas while also satisfying the liberal guy in California … I really thought, at the time, it was just the war on terror, but in hindsight, it was a lot of reasons,” Curry said.
News stations also helped to shape both civilian and military viewpoints on the war. Johnny Yang ,a sixth-year biological sciences major of the U.S. Army, discussed the effects of the conservative viewpoints found in the majority of the army. He remarked that within mess halls and camps, selection of news stations were limited.
“The only news I watched was Fox News. All they had was Fox and I thought that was the same as CNN. The attitudes you get would depend on the kind of news you watch,” Yang said.
Similarly, the practice of actually watching news differs greatly. Zelener found that in Israel, people watch news stations constantly and continually watch multiple stations in an attempt to find the true story.
“Here, I probably watch the news once a week, while every person watches the news in Israel every hour on the hour. The news here is based on skewing words and it’s really important that we look at both to see which one gives you the real story,” Zelener said.
Toward the end of the segment, panel members were asked to share their worst and best memories of the war.
Curry relayed a heart-breaking story of a poorly planned mission. The troops lacked the appropriate firearms to complete their mission and suffered from a lack of communication. A marine, having to physically relay information to and from the site, returned at the wrong time and was cut down by a machine gun.
“Having to carry him in my arms – you have this body covered in blood. I never felt more helpless in my life. You start going through all these things and you wonder why it was him and not you,” Curry said.
After relaying his most painful memory, he seemed happy to be talking about something more pleasant. He felt that his best memories stemmed from those in which he was able to interact on a personal level with the Iraqi people.
“I remember just being able to just sit down with an Iraqi guy talking about his family. We could have been on a porch somewhere living the American Dream at a family barbecue. Just seeing that deep down they’re not that much different from us,” Curry said.
While the majority of the discussion encompassed war-time memories, the panel members also remarked on the difficulty that veterans are faced with when returning to civilian life.
“When you’re doing military work you have support; the support of military service members is all around you. When you’re getting out, all your support is gone. Now you’re supported by school faculty and family, but they are less likely to be able to first-hand relate to the experience you’ve had,” Raheb said.
Although the difficulty of acclimation remains, now that these veterans are returning to school and have more support from their communities, threats like post-traumatic stress disorder become less likely.