Soldier in Iraq Uses Computer, Friends to Stay in College

MIAMI
Juan Ramos hunkers down in Army barracks just outside Saddam
Hussein’s hometown, hoping insurgent fire doesn’t interrupt his online biology
class.

He chats via computer with a professor at Miami
Dade College
and tells fellow students in an online posting, “Well, I am not your typical
guy or your typical Latino” before describing the gunshot in the head he
survived and the inspiration he finds when he “breathes” Pachelbel’s
Canon.

Ramos, 24, an Army specialist who is pursuing an engineering
degree online, connects the chaos of a combat zone in Iraq
with the normalcy of hometown life in ways not possible for soldiers even 16
years ago, during the first Gulf War. Online education may be the most striking
example; hundreds of colleges aggressively market to an audience of soldiers
who can sign up for classes instantly.

That led to a doubling in the amount the U.S. military spent
on tuition reimbursement between 2002 and 2006, according to The Chronicle of
Higher Education in Washington, D.C. Schools like Nova Southeastern University
in Davie, with large online programs, have been particularly active in
recruiting military members, with dozens of deployed soldiers taking classes in
a given semester.

But pursuing a degree is only part of Ramos’ motivation. The
classes he’s taking help “to combat the loneliness, boredom and
desperation that comes with life in this country,” he wrote in an e-mail
interview.

“I love these classes because it makes me think, it
helps me escape the detrimental effects of this world and makes me feel as if I
belong.”

Ramos once toured half the bases in Iraq to pick up a
textbook when a package mailed by his mother was accidentally delivered to his
old base and he hitched a ride on a helicopter that changed schedules. He
divides his free time between the gym and the computer screen. He chats with
friends online for hours, with Web cameras in real time. He checks his stocks,
uses the phone and makes friends through MySpace. He buys books through Amazon
or downloads music on iTunes.

“We sit and debate religion and politics and whatever,
for no apparent reason,” said Valerie Goodfellow, 27, a friend from Miami
who Ramos met through MySpace. They chat for two hours a day via instant
message, but have never met in person. “We talk about how excited he gets when
ice cream shows up. Ice cream is a hot commodity.”

Some chats are interrupted. “He’ll be like, ‘I’ll be
right back . . . shots are being fired on the other side of the river.'”

Goodfellow said she finds Ramos more mature and thoughtful
than most men his age who seem like they would rather party than debate serious
issues and check their Wells Fargo stock. There’s a difference, of course,
between Ramos and civilian men his age. Ramos wears a metal band on his right
wrist to remember an officer who died in a roadside bombing.

Ramos, a stocky guy with bushy eyebrows, works
communications on a base near the front lines on the outskirts of Tikrit. He
hopes to earn an associate degree next year and to continue, when his third and
final tour ends in November, studying for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in
engineering.

“The best idea he’s had is taking advantage of the
moment, such a dangerous moment, and getting something good out of it,”
said his mother, Bernardina Ramos, 51, a printing press employee in Miami who
last saw her son in March.

Bernardina Ramos is impatient for Juan’s return, as is Juan.

He lives in Iraq’s 120-degree desert. He smells crude oil,
mud and wet dog. He hears military generators and crackling radios.

“Being in Iraq means your life back in America is on
pause,” he writes.

 I missed so many movies and events back in America
that whenever I go home, people look at me weird. I play music that is months
old and claim to love it because it’s new.”

He uses old slang, references old events. His base is
all-male and alcohol-free. When he’s on leave, a glass of Kahlua makes him
dizzy and the sight of a woman makes him shy.

Ramos, the son of a Cuban exile and a Mexican immigrant, was
raised in Liberty City. He enlisted in 2001, a month before Sept. 11. He didn’t
have money for college and couldn’t get a decent job. His best friend had been
accepted as a military helicopter mechanic, and the Army seemed more appealing
than feeling left behind by friends who went to college.

He got married and planned for him and his wife to get
college degrees, one at a time so they could support each other. But they
separated when he returned from his second tour in fall 2005. “I was
penniless and heartbroken.”

By then, North Carolina
had become his stateside residence and he was homesick. During a break, he
drove to Miami Dade
College’s InterAmerican Campus,
still in misery, and signed up for classes: psychology, philosophy, social
science, biology.

Studying in a combat zone is tough. “Sometimes student
(soldiers) work 12-hour shifts and still need time to sleep, eat and work
out,” Ramos wrote.

One of his friends dropped out of classes. His old roommate
quit in March after he lost a leg and was sent to Walter
Reed Army Medical
Center in Washington,
D.C.

During a conference call with his English class last
semester, Ramos’ teacher could hear equipment rumbling in the background.

“We were talking about, I think, Reading Lolita in Tehran:
(A Memoir in Books),” Professor Carlos Gonzalez said. “You hear all
this noise. Yet he kept going and so did we.”

Sounds of war and dispatches from the front lines make Ramos
as much a part of the lesson as the course material on some days, his teachers
say.

“He’s a brilliant writer. He keeps my whole class
entertained with his e-mails,” said Shane Gunderson, an adjunct social
science professor at MDC.

In November, Ramos expects to return to North
Carolina and begin his transition to civilian life.
He wants to travel to Hawaii,
sign up for classes and, for the first time, take advantage of some other
aspects of campus life.

“As soon as I have my life in order . . . I will start
looking for a girlfriend,” he said. “I am more than overdue for
one.”

– Associated Press



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