Classrooms different type of battlefield
January 10, 2011 —
As you enter the Ryder Center for fitness classes or a workout, you may come across Aaron Mowen, the director of Campus Recreation. In speaking with him, you notice his undeniable passion for fitness. But when you enter his office, you see a deeper side of him.
One wall is cloaked with an America flag. Adjacent to it stands a coat rack with a military coat. As you continue to walk the perimeters of the office, you will come across a black and red clock with the words ‘United States Marine Corps’.
“The Marines is part of everything I do,” he said.
Like many veterans who work at or attend SVSU, the military plays a critical part in their experience on campus. When hearing conversations of other students, thoughts are ignited of pivotal moment in their lives in the military.
“Here I am listening to students worried about where the next party is going to be, and I am concerned with that soldier who will not be able to come home to see his family for the holidays,” Mowen said.
Being concerned about these soldiers is not new to Mowen. In September 2006 during his last year of study at SVSU, he was deployed to Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad.
“You didn’t have to worry about bills or grades,” he said. “You just had to worry about saving your life and the lives of the soldiers next to you.”
There were 22 American casualties, one of which included a sergeant. Mowen often yearned to come back home.
Tragedies like these are familiar to many veterans. Douglas Szczepanski, a senior criminal justice major and president of the Cardinal Military Association (CMA), was a personal gunner for an Army police commander while in Iraq.
He patrolled more than 8,000 miles of land. It was during that time he was wounded by a suicide bomber.
“I lost vision in my left eye,” he said. “My right hand, my dominant one, was damaged. Where my jaw is, there are metal plates holding it together.”
Szczepanski received a Purple Heart and is medically retired as a sergeant, but his desire to motivate others has strengthened. He attributes his ability to persevere to Christ and often speaks at churches and functions throughout the area.
“My faith in Christ has brought me through all of this,” he said. “I now understand the important things in life which are my faith, family, friends and my fiancée.”
It is the veterans’ experiences that separate their lives from other students and administration. That is why there are services on campus to assists veterans, including the CMA.
“[It’s a place] that gives you that special connection to those who have served and find a way to look out for our battle buddies,” said Mike Major, adviser for the CMA and a member of the Navy. “When you serve, you have unique experiences in which you can connect to people that speak the same language as you.”
Mowen said that what’s discussed in the media and in the classroom is merely a fraction of what actually occurs in combat.
“I remember sitting in my political science class and listening to my teacher talk about the war based on something he heard on CNN, and I thought to myself that he is not over there and has no idea what is actually going on,” said Mowen.
Not every veteran’s life is consumed by his or her service in the military. Mowen and Szczepanski dispelled negative stereotypes associated with men and women in the military. Those close to them would agree.
“When I got engaged to Douglas, my family was concerned because of his Army background. But I know he is not a stereotype. He is a very kind and loving person,” said Alyssa Puse, Szczepanski’s fiancé and senior nursing major.
Mowen and Szczepanski apply their leadership and discipline skills from the military to their work and studies at SVSU. In return, they learned valuable life lessons they receive in a college environment.
“I have learned just let things roll off,” said Szczepanski. “I am learning a lot about becoming a better leader and how to manage a business from the classes I’ve taken.”
Some veterans at SVSU would prefer that others not harp on the tragedies and violence associated with the military and war. Instead, they’d like the focus to be what they accomplished for the people they are protecting.
“When I used to watch the news, all they would talk about was a soldier getting killed, they never talked about anything good that we did,” said Szczepanski. “But when you pick up a kid [in Iraq] and give them a piece of candy, and they are so excited and feel as if they now have a future because of what you are doing, you can’t say we’ve done nothing to help.”