Iraq war veteran David Carper graduated from with his degree in human services Wednesday on the eve of Thursday's formal end to the war in Iraq.
Now he plans to pursue a career helping other veterans as the transitions coordinator for
"What makes the center unique is that everyone is a veteran," Carper says. "We’re not Army-specific or Marine-specific or Navy-specific. We have a very diverse culture. In the military, you only have one ethnicity, and that’s green."
Carper says veterans are used to taking classes, following orders and working hard, "but we're not used to having to do it on our own with little guidance. We’re not used to doing it without support of fellow soldiers."
Like thousands of other veterans, Carper still struggles with the transition back home.
"You’re never ready for combat. As much training as they can provide, you’re never truly ready for combat—for what happens, for what needs to get done."
According to a 2011 Pew Research study, 27 percent of veterans reported having difficulty re-entering civilian life. That number swelled to 44 percent among veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Post-9/11 veterans reported even more difficulties with the transition than did their Vietnam and World War II predecessors.
“We’re not asking to be seen as heroes or have ticker-tape parades or whatever they are,” Carper says. “We just want people to understand that when we’re ready, we’ll move forward.”
From Civilian to Serviceman
Carper, who lives in Acworth but is from Miami, enlisted in the Army at 18. He completed training as an infantryman in 2001, 10 days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Carper served in the 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry, part of the Florida National Guard, and didn't know how the attacks would affect him as a soldier.
"We knew we were an infantry unit, a combat unit, a high-priority unit," he says. "I don’t know if we were ready. But we were all willing."
The mobilization for Iraq began in January 2003. Carper was one of nearly 150,000 U.S. troops deployed during the initial invasion that March. His unit was attached to the 3rd Armored Calvary.
"You’ve got people who were just weeks prior security guards, nurses, construction workers that are now thrown together into combat," he says.
"I liked to have thought that I was ready. But you’re never ready for combat. As much training as they can provide, you’re never truly ready for combat—for what happens, for what needs to get done."
Deployment to Iraq
Carper’s unit set up in Ramadi, a city in central Iraq just west of Fallujah.
"We weren’t sure what to expect," Carper says. It was the initial invasion, before roadside bombs came into play.
Days in camp in Ramadi consisted of taking out canisters of feces and burning them. The first form of entertainment involved counting the bugs that got stuck in the flytraps hanging from the ceiling.
"We would spend hours," he says, laughing. "Then it would get broken up by mortar fire."
Internet and phone access didn’t arrive until December. Carper made his first phone call to his mom on Christmas. He was on the phone for only a few minutes when the alarms went off for a mortar attack.
Becoming a Soldier
Carper’s first combat came on his second night in Ramadi. He had gone at least 24 hours without sleep and had just finished guard duty when he returned to his bunk.
"All of a sudden, I just hear this loud boom. I see everybody scrambling around. This was the first time we had taken fire.
"I start running out to the wall, and (I'm) about halfway out the building, and I just see this string of fire going across."
It wasn't until his platoon sergeant told him to get dressed that Carper realized he was wearing only underwear, a flak vest and a helmet—rifle in hand.
"A soldier is someone who realizes it’s more than just an opportunity. It’s something that makes you."
Combat triggered his shift from service member to soldier.
A service member is "someone who volunteers, not sure why, just does it as a job," Carper says. "A soldier is someone who realizes it’s more than just an opportunity. It’s something that makes you."
In Ramadi for more than a year, the troops were attacked about 10 times a week by mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire and roadside bombs.
"It wasn’t long until we started racking up our first wounded soldiers," Carper says. His unit suffered the highest number of casualties but had no one killed.
His battalion’s missions included retrieving weapons scattered throughout the Iraqi countryside, and he says his unit is credited with uncovering one of the war's largest weapons caches.
"As an infantryman, you get the dirtiest of the dirty jobs. Anything and everything that’s required to be done, regardless of how minuscule or how important, you’re pretty much given the ball and told to run with it."
Carper recalls the first time he realized his life was in danger. A friend a foot and a half away took a shrapnel round to the head.
"I immediately jump up and see him, and I just see blood coming down his face. So I grab out a rag and get on the radio," Carper says. "As soon as I stopped talking, the entire radio net just went silent.
"That entire time until the morning, I was in the tower by myself. There was blood on the wall, on the floor, and I was there by myself."
In those silent moments, the reality of the situation hit him: "Because I was on the right-hand side, I didn’t get hit, and he did. Those little, small decisions—I could have been sitting on the left."
Carper’s friend has recovered, although he suffers migraines.
Carper says Iraqi allies also “risked life and limb just because they wanted to experience life without a dictator, life without fear," he says. "There were several times that people who provided us with good information wound up either leaving or being captured or killed themselves."
But it was difficult to separate enemies from noncombatants. For example, Iraqis often celebrated weddings by driving around and shooting into the air.
"Now you’re talking about dozens and dozens of cars doing this, driving in front of our compound," he says. "Every now and then, we’d hear pop shots—that would mean someone in the crowd was shooting at us. So there were many times we were fired upon where we could not engage.
"Other times were more simple, and you’d see a handful of guys just shooting at another handful of guys. That’s a lot easier to make out."
Carper sometimes replays what-if scenarios in his mind. "I was always praised by my command for making competent decisions. But you question if the competent decision is always the right one."
"There comes a point, especially in combat, that you have to realize that something could happen to you," Carper says. "I think that’s where the first struggle of transitioning out of combat duty is—that moment when you realize that you could be next to coming home and not having to worry about that anymore."
"You couldn’t let things get to you, whether it was a buddy getting half his head blown off or seeing enemy combatants lying in the street. ... When you come home, that’s a characteristic of a sociopath."
Carper's homecoming included a convoy with firefighters and police. "It looked like a Thanksgiving Day parade on the interstate," he says.
A year and a half had passed since Carper had seen his family. After an hour-long ceremony, he was finally reunited with his parents, sister and nieces.
"I remember feeling lost," Carper says. "Emotionally, I don’t think I really felt much of anything—not at the time anyway. I wasn’t really sure what to do next."
He struggled with the transition into civilian life. "In combat, I felt emotionally numb. You couldn’t let things bother you. You couldn’t let things get to you, whether it was a buddy getting half his head blown off or seeing enemy combatants lying in the street.
"And in combat, that’s normal. That’s actually preferred. And then when you come home, that’s a characteristic of a sociopath.”
Emotions would come flooding back in uncontrollable waves. "Things that are normal and expected almost felt intolerable."
Carper says things are getting better with the support of friends and family. His family realized early that even if he wasn't ready to talk, just being around made a world of difference.
"Even though they couldn’t relate to my experiences, I knew that they cared enough, and I knew that caring was my first acceptance of emotions returning," he says.
Carper eventually married Carolyn, whom he met in the first grade and kept in touch with in Iraq. He recalls a special cruise they took together to the Caribbean: "We were looking out at the water, and I was holding her, and we were against the rail, and I tell her I love her. She tells me that she loves me."
He asked whether she loved him enough to say I do. "Thankfully, she said yes."
Helping Other Veterans
As a new graduate of Kennesaw State, Carper has been hired for a full-time position as transitions coordinator for the university's the first of its kind in Georgia.
What started off as a student-run initiative is now a university-funded center that offers counseling and resources to veterans who want to enter college.
Carper says the center helped him apply for veteran benefits and connected him with other veterans "who basically took it as a personal mission to make sure I stayed in school."
As a student worker at the center, he advised fellow veterans. Now he'll take on a leadership role as a full-time staff member.
"The most satisfying part of my job is when a veteran leaves our center relaxed and ready to move forward," Carper says. And moving forward is exactly what he plans to do. He hopes to pursue a career helping veterans and to earn a master's and a doctorate.
His message to other members of the veteran community: "You’re not alone. People do care, and help is out there. Regardless of whatever it may be, you just need to ask.”
This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," our ongoing series about how people in Kennesaw are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.
This article also is part of on student veterans at KSU, aiming to learn more about the university's veteran community—one story at a time. about the university's Veterans Resource Center.