Brendan Poelaert was severely wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up where Poelaert and other Marines were protecting civilians at a police recruiting station in Iraq. Now a sociology major at UNH, Poelaert is among a growing number of veterans returning to college. (Mike Ross photo)
A new generation of student veterans enrolls
Sit next to Brendan Poelaert in a UNH sociology class, and you might not notice much to separate him from other students. Sure, he’s a little taller than most, with rusty red hair, calming blue eyes, and a lean but rugged build. Possibly an athlete. Definitely a Red Sox fan.
He studies hard, hangs out with friends, and worries about his bills.
Over time, though, you might pick out two faint scars on the right side of his neck, each about the size of a pea. And then others, up and down his right arm. And a few more on his right leg, too.
“It got me here and here and here, and right here. See that that little mark?” Poelaert says, pointing to a pale indent in the skin below his right ear. “That one went right through and came out the back of my neck. How it missed my spine, I have no idea.”
Ball bearings do horrible, unpredictable things when they slam into a body with explosive power.
At least eight of the steel balls hit Poelaert when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Iraq, where Poelaert, a Marine corporal, was guarding an Iraqi police recruiting station. Flapoor, the military police dog that Poelaert trained and depended on, was also struck, and the blast left both of them bleeding profusely, dazed, and gravely injured—but alive.
Some 40 others standing all around Poelaert were killed, including his best friend, Marine Sgt. Adam Cann, and Cann’s dog.
“He pretty much died right in my arms,” Poelaert says of Cann, his words trailing off into the quiet of a Stoke Hall student lounge.
Today, Poelaert is working on a dual major in sociology and justice studies and plans to graduate in May. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering that he is still recovering from war wounds that left him with migraines, frequent bloody noses, and sleep problems long after the blast in 2006.
“One of the things that most impresses me about him is his tenacity,” says Poelaert’s adviser, Ted Kirkpatrick, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and director of Justiceworks. “He had some real challenges when he came here, but he just hunkers down and does the work.”
UNH to Hold Sept. 11 Remembrance Ceremony
The tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks bear special significance to veterans such as Poelaert, and many planned to attend a remembrance ceremony at UNH on Sept. 9.
“I think it’s important never to forget the victims of 9/11, and how we came together as a country,” Poelaert says. “I will never forget that day, and I don’t think I ever will.”
Veteran enrollments on the rise
Poelaert is among an estimated 600 veterans, active duty soldiers, reservists, and military dependents attending UNH.
The University has seen military-related enrollments climb nearly 25 percent a year in recent years, and 40 percent a year at its Manchester campus, says Lonn Sattler, veterans’ coordinator at the UNH Registrar’s Office. Sattler credits much of the increase to the federal Post 9/11 GI Bill, signed into law in 2008, which bolstered education benefits and options.
Sattler, a career Navy veteran, helps these students maneuver reams of forms, deadlines, and academic requirements, and he also serves as the trusted resource for everything from counseling services to housing to veterans’ discussion groups.
For veterans who qualify, the GI Bill covers full tuition at a public university, plus $1,500 a month for living expenses, and $1,000 a year for books.
“Making sure they’re able to get the benefits they’re entitled to is very important, because if they mess up on some of this it can cost them $100,000 in benefits over the course of their life,” Sattler says.
Sattler’s office has doubled as an informal drop-in center for veterans, who haven’t had a dedicated office space on campus until this fall. “One of the most important things we can do is find vets other vets to talk with,” Sattler says.
Finding common ground
Poelaert and other veterans don’t walk around campus advertising their military service, and many say they try to avoid the subject. It’s not so much that they mind talking about it, they say, but that they don’t want their military experiences to be their sole identifying characteristic in college.
“If people ask me about it or it comes up in class, I’ll tell them,” Poelaert says. “But I try not to go on about it too much. People tend to look at you differently, especially if they think you killed somebody….On the other hand, I’ve had students come up and thank me for my service, too, and that’s pretty cool.”
Whether they served in combat or not, veterans tend to seek each other out, says Pete Hamel, who joined the Army in 2000 and served eight years. Hamel, also studying sociology at UNH, was a combat engineer in Iraq, providing security and disposing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“I had two Humvees blown out from under me,” Hamel says. In all, he survived 15 IED blasts, and he credits the heavily armored army vehicles with saving his life several times.
Poelaert and Hamel say such experiences create a deep bond among veterans, one that endures as they enter college.
“I really didn’t socialize with other students here until I started meeting other veterans,” Hamel says.
With fellow veteran Jason Austin and several others, Hamel is helping to start the new UNH Student Veterans Organization, which already has an active Facebook page. The group meets informally at weekly brown bag sessions during the academic year, hosts panel discussions and webinars, and represents veterans at UNH admissions open houses, resource fairs, and other events.
“It’s funny, but when we get together with other vets, we actually don’t talk a lot about what we did in the service,” says Hamel, who grew up in Hooksett. “We don’t really have to…there’s that common background there.”
Student and Academic Services worked with student veterans and Sattler to open a new Veterans Support Office in Hood House this fall, staffed by Karen Gilbert, veteran support specialist.
By the time they enroll in UNH, most veterans have already eased back into civilian life, finishing out their active service with assignments in the United States or taking time off to work and explore career options. Hamel, for instance, wrapped up his stint at a base in Massachusetts and Poelaert returned to the U.S. in 2007 to rehabilitate from his injuries.
Veterans say the transition back into the classroom, however, carries two challenges: One, returning to an academic setting after years away from school; and two, being surrounded by classmates who are right out of high school.
“The biggest thing was the age difference,” Hamel says. “I mean, here I was at 25 or 26 years old, and everyone around me was 18. That was harder to get used to than readjusting to civilian life.”
Poelaert struggled as well. Although he says he wasn’t a great student in high school, he matured quickly in the service and came to UNH determined to work toward a degree and a career in law enforcement.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” Poelaert says. “But on the other hand, it wasn’t easy getting shot at, either.”
Poelaert’s eyes brighten when he talks about the help he’s received at UNH, especially from Kirkpatrick, his adviser and mentor.
“I love coming into his office, because every time I leave, I always feel better about myself and what I’m doing,” Poelaert says. “He’ll tell me things like, ‘You’ve showed a lot of resilience. Every time you hit an obstacle, you kept on going and you didn’t let it slow you down. And that’s a great quality to have in life.’ ”
Today, Poelaert feels the best he’s felt since he left Iraq. He was an intern this summer at the Dover Teen Center, working one-on-one with local teens. He’s doing well in school and closing in on a 3.5 GPA; and he’s already thinking about his next career step.
Kirkpatrick isn’t surprised. He says veterans make ideal students, often excelling at demanding University-level work and research in subjects they struggled with in high school.
“Dramatic life experiences change people. And especially when you go through combat, you’re dramatically changed,” Kirkpatrick says. “So when they come here, they are more mature and dedicated to the entire enterprise, because they know how precious this opportunity really is.”
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