Eric Benson joined the Navy and saw the world. He also saw multiple tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, a concussion from an enemy explosion, two failed marriages and a lingering case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now, the 1993 Waterloo East High School graduate and former combat photographer has found a home, and a future, at the University of Northern Iowa.
"They've made me feel like I've been wanted," he said. Benson, who served in the Navy from 1996-2008, is the director of nontraditional/veteran affairs for Northern Iowa Student Government, an appointed position. He also co-chairs the UNI Veterans Association.
"I think the university is making great strides into making this one of the top veteran-friendly schools in the nation," Benson said. "It's not that they're not doing enough; it's fact there's so much more they could do, but we're trying to do it as fast as possible. And I want to do it right the first time."
In addition, the university is in the process of hiring a coordinator for military and veteran students. "They're trying to meet the standards, but I'm telling them you need to set your sites beyond the standards," he said.
"Let's take possession of this program and really move it forward. How do we encourage vets to come here?" After 12 years in the military, he knows such aspirations take time and incremental steps.
In the short term, Benson urged the adoption of a proposal the Veterans Association recently made to the Faculty Senate, for a policy change that would treat military service similar to university-sanctioned events like athletics, allowing students an opportunity to make up missed work.
The change, well received and now under review, would allow service members and veterans to miss a class, assignment or exam without their course grade being penalized. Benson's military experience is broad and varied.
In addition to taking photos of soldiers in combat, between some of his Iraq deployments, Benson served with the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command.
He helped recover remains of fallen U.S. soldiers on decades-old battlefields in New Guinea from World War II; North Korea; and Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In his combat photographer job, he would follow troops into battle and capture what he saw as best he could.
Military public affairs officers would release some the photos; the rest are archived for historical value. He jokes to relatives that they might actually see some of his work 50 years from now in a textbook.
"There's a line among combat cameramen, that, 'You're nuts to go out and shoot at people that shoot at you. You're insane if you go out and shoot pictures of people who are shooting at you,'" Benson said. That service has had its residual effects.
On the highway, he avoids driving next to semis, because those were the supply vehicles most subject to enemy attack in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's instinctively wary of discolored, repaired or re-patched road surfaces because that is where the enemy would plant improved explosive devices or roadside bombs.
He recognizes and manages such feelings. During service, Benson said, "A lot of the way to deal with PTSD is, you just kinda suck it up and troop on. Because you're surrounded by guys going through it, and you just try to rely on each other."
That support network is absent when a service member heads home, or to school, following military service. It is the kind of support network Benson hopes UNI can foster on campus. Benson is taking a full load of classes and majoring in electronic media and history with a minor in journalism.
He'd like to move on to grad school and, eventually, make documentaries, potentially on challenges facing veterans, and other subjects. He runs his own photography enterprise.
He believes a university is only as good as its academic programs and when those programs are cut, all students suffer, not just veterans.
The university and other public institutions need to ready themselves for what may be the greatest influx of returning veterans since World War II, Benson suggested.
But he's also noting an difference between the way this generation of veterans is being welcomed, compared to Vietnam-era veterans who were harassed and abused as they were caught up in the antiwar sentiment and debate over that conflict.
The attitude now is one of respect, which goes a long way toward creating a welcoming environment. "I've never had students here treat me different because I'm a vet," Benson said. "Some are kind of, like, 'Wow, that's a lot.'
And I do think because of public awareness due to other things like the movies and 'Saving Private Ryan' people know we make sacrifices. They also know we went through hard stuff."
"One student said to me once, 'I can go to school because you volunteered to go and do this,'" Benson said. "'I can attend school without having to be drafted, and it's because people like you volunteered to go more than once.'"
By PAT KINNEY, firstname.lastname@example.org