Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Messenger: Marine Wants to Help College Students Develop Empathy for Veterans

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Messenger: Marine Wants to Help College Students Develop Empathy for Veterans

Article excerpt

On his first day in Abu Ghraib, the perils of war were pounded into James Petersen's psyche minute by terrifying minute.

It was April 20, 2004. The Marine from Collinsville found himself in Iraq five years after he had enlisted.

"We took over 40 mortars that day," Petersen said. At that point, most of the prisoners at the infamous camp were outside in tents. Twenty-two prisoners died. "Body parts were everywhere," he said.

What he saw, felt and heard took its toll.

Petersen got out of the military in 2007 and went back to school at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He earned a bachelor's degree, then ended up back in Iraq and Afghanistan as a military contractor between 2008 and 2013.

When he eventually returned to St. Louis, fits of anger and fear dominated his life.

He couldn't enjoy Fair St. Louis because the fireworks caused flashbacks. The sound of the garbage truck slamming the Dumpster in the alley sent a chill down his spine.

Petersen, who is now 37, was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Like many soldiers who have returned from America's longest-running wars in the Middle East, transition to regular life wasn't easy.

"It's really difficult to go from the battlefield to the classroom," Petersen said.

Petersen is now a graduate student at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. As president of WUVets, a student group for veterans, he's helped organize a Veterans Day event at the school's Anheuser-Busch Hall. From 6 to 7:30 p.m., students will hear from a World War II vet, a Korean War vet and other combat veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will give the keynote address.

Petersen hopes his fellow students gain an understanding for how difficult it can be for veterans to make the transition to civilian life after experiencing so much violence. …

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