Senior Isiah James, a decorated veteran, finds community and support on the Brooklyn College campus thanks to the college’s Veteran and Military Program.
Out of the corner of his eye, senior Isiah James saw the grenade coming toward him.
It was 2009, the day before Valentine’s Day, 10:30 in the morning, and he and his unit were on patrol, their first mission for the U.S. Army in Kirkuk, Iraq. This was second of James’s three deployments—the first in Baghdad, Iraq, and the third in Maiwand, Afghanistan.
The mission began three hours late and the streets of Kirkuk were already bustling. This worried James because a dangerous situation was made even more so as Iraqi civilians could get caught in crossfire between U.S. soldiers and insurgents. James was positioned in the last of a convoy of four armored trucks, each outfitted with machine gun turrets. As a gunner and trained sniper, James was charged with protecting the convoy from any danger that might come from behind. His weapon allowed him to spot and respond to potential attacks from a 180-degree radius.
“I’m standing there behind my 50-caliber machine gun. One hundred armor-piercing incendiary rounds,” James recalls. “The turret is electric, so you move a little joystick and it turns. I’m scanning high. I’m looking at windows and building rooftops because they like to shoot at you from there. My turret is off to the right-hand side. The turret doesn’t move as fast as my head. And to my left, I see movement.”
That is when he saw two men running, one of whom had a Russian RKG-3 anti-tank grenade in his hand. As James tried to turn his turret around to address the imminent threat, the man threw the grenade directly toward James.
“I’ll never forget it. Just like in movies, everything proceeded in slow motion. I thought, ‘#^$%! He got me. I’m dead.'”
The grenade hit James’ turret, bounced into the air, and exploded. The concussive force of the explosion knocked him unconscious and pushed him deeper into the belly of the vehicle. He isn’t certain how long he was out, but he awoke to an Army medic standing over him, asking if he was okay. Instinctively, James removed his gloves and stuck his finger into his left ear. When he removed his finger, there was blood.
As a result of the blast, James experienced a mild traumatic brain injury. He had to relearn how to speak; he has permanent hearing loss in his left ear; he experiences chronic migraines and pains in his joints; and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—leaving him, among other things, unable to enter his home without first checking behind doors, inside closets, and under beds to ensure no one is lurking, waiting to do him further harm.
“I’m 31 years old and I’m 90 percent disabled,” he says.
For his service during three tours of duty, James was the recipient of 25 medals, ribbons, and badges, including the Presidential Unit Citation for “gallantry, determination . . . in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions” and the Valorous Unit Award for “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy of the United States.”
It took some time for James to manage these obstacles, some of which he continues to deal with, but his healing journey led him into academia to study the very causes of human conflict, and to learn ways to resolve these differences nonviolently. The Florida native came to Brooklyn College after his spouse, Damaris Rosado-James ’10, who studied art history at the college, and whom he married on September 30 of this year, recommended it to him. He enrolled and decided to devote the entirety of his intellectual energy to the study of political science in an attempt to understand how to solve some of the problems in the world he saw firsthand.
“I’ve definitely noticed the influence of Isiah’s service in the classroom,” said Sara Hassani, adjunct lecturer of political science, who teaches James in her “Politics of Incarceration” course. “Not only does he have a wealth of experience to draw from in relation to the topics we discuss, but he also demonstrates a passionate commitment to social justice. His dedication to service shines through his vocal concerns over abuses of power, as well as the problem-solving approach that inspires many of his interventions. He’s not usually satisfied with simply identifying the underlying causes of social issues. Rather, he often emphasizes the ways in which we can strive to overcome them. It’s refreshing to see.”
These success stories are par for the course thanks to the support the college offers vets. The Brooklyn College Veteran and Military Program—whose motto is “Thank you for your service; now let us serve you!”—aids veterans in their transition from military to civilian to academic life.
“The primary goal of the program is to actively engage all veterans, active duty members, their dependents, and survivors in campus-wide programs and activities that will enhance their college experience,” said Claudette Guinn, the program coordinator. “Our services include assisting veterans in applying for the G.I. Bill; certifying and validating their benefits in compliance with current Veterans Administration regulations; mentoring incoming veterans; and providing updated information regarding changes in educational benefits, federal laws, support services, additional entitlements, special scholarships for dependents of deceased and disabled veterans, and the special book cost program for veterans. The program also provides referrals for on- and off-campus services when necessary, such as the Center for Disability Services, immigration, pro bono legal services, internships, and career opportunities.”
In addition to the program, the Veteran Students’ Organization (VSO), founded in 1974 by Vietnam War-era soldiers, is also a place where Brooklyn College students who served in the military find community. And the college has a sizable population of veterans. Each year, it tracks the enrollment of students with military service. In fall 2017, 200 students identified as veterans, the largest cohort in the last five years.
“You know there are other people who are like you, who have similar combat experiences to your own.” James said of the Veteran and Military Program, for which he sometimes serves as mentor and tutor. “It’s what we in the military call ‘espirit de corps,’ that sense of a shared value system shaped by our service.”
He recommends that other student veterans utilize the program’s services as well.
“Find someone you can trust and talk to them,” he advises. “It will help tremendously.”
James will be graduating at the end of the fall semester. He is planning to take the LSAT in December, and says he will pursue a career in public policy after he finishes law school.
Contact: Ernesto Mora | 212.662.9939 | firstname.lastname@example.org