Coming Home: From Iraq to the Classroom
It’s 5 a.m. Monday morning. By that time, Simon Wiley, a retired Army Sergeant, is on his way to the UA from his farm outside of Greenwood.
Wiley decided to join the Air Force after graduating from Rogers High School in 1997. Two years later, he completed basic training and was deployed to Turkey.
September 11 came. He joined the Army and was active duty in October 2001. Wiley became a part of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 as part of a field artillery unit.
“We pushed through Kuwait up into Iraq. I don’t want to get into a bunch of details about what I did over there,” he said, pausing to look up from his spit cup.
Wiley found himself stateside before being honorably discharged from the Army in 2005. Like many modern-day veterans, he is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It’s pretty tough. It took me a long time to even be around people. As a matter of fact, before I bought my farm, I had a home on the north side of Fort Smith and just the cars driving by, in my head, it’d be gunfire.”
Wiley has since joined a motorcycle club that, like the military, values “brotherhood.”
He took a job with the Highway Department in 2007, and after advancing as far as he could without a bachelor’s degree, he signed up with University of Arkansas Fort Smith to pursue a civil engineering degree.
A miscommunication led Wiley to the UA, though he would have had to finish his degree here anyway.
“Honestly, I don’t like the UA,” Wiley said. “If my kids want to go to college, I’ll probably recommend they go somewhere else.”
There was an organic camaraderie with veterans at Fort Smith, Wiley said. A lack of non-traditional students and large class sizes at the university leave veterans at the UA disenchanted, he said.
“I feel there’s just something lacking,” he said.
Wiley’s hopes of a traditional college lifestyle have long passed.
“I always had the grand idea of going to the UA and being in a fraternity, having a good time, going to pep-rallys doing that kind of stuff,” he said. “But I don’t even receive information on when the pep-rallys are.”
The Veteran Resource and Information Center aims to help veterans like Wiley adapt to the UA, said Erika Gamboa, office director and former veteran.
“We do anything the student may need to succeed,” Gamboa said. “Anytime a student comes in, we see what their needs are.”
The office helps deal with transitioning from other schools, applying for benefits, scholarships, advising and tutoring, Gamboa said.
“With us going through the process with them, it makes them feel like they’re not alone, like they don’t have to go through the process by themselves,” she said.
The office cannot address individual problems students like Wiley have with class sizes and curricula, but making the experience easier for veterans is a constant, Gamboa said.
“Because of the way we treat our students, they come into our office and know they can ask any question,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it is a question that has nothing to do with education, they’ll come and ask it.”
Gamboa estimates that about 580 students requested service this semester, up from 450 last spring. Gamboa said new students haven’t been a problem for the office.
“We’ve been seeing them even before they announced Iraq was going to be over,” she said. “It’s a continuous cycle. Our students come back from deployments at different times in their combat.”
Outreach, however, has posed some challenges. Gamboa acknowledged that some students fall through the cracks.
“There’s some veterans that don’t know about us, but when they meet other veterans and start talking, they learn about it.”
Wiley, for one, has barely heard of the center.
“I don’t even know what they do,” he said.
Wiley may not have the time. He has two daughters, a job and a farm. But he doesn’t make excuses—he’ll be up at 5 a.m. next Monday, like every Monday.
“I mean it’s tough, of course, because I don’t have the time available that someone that lives in the dorms and doesn’t have a job has,” he said. “It’s hard, but I’m doing the best I can considering the circumstances.”