After spending a year in Iraq as part of an Army National Guard unit from New Hampshire, 24-year-old Ernie Lemelin returned to his hometown of Bethlehem in March 2005, unsure if and when he would return to college at Plymouth State University. According to Lemelin, who will graduate later this month with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, it took a while before he was ready again for homework, final exams and dorm life.
By the time Lemelin returned to PSU six months after leaving Iraq, most of his college friends had already graduated. He hadn’t been on campus for more than a year, and had just changed his major from music education to interdisciplinary studies, with a focus on music and business. On the morning of his first day of classes at PSU, his car – parked at the National Guard armory building near campus – was broken into and ransacked. Lemelin felt discouraged.
“I didn’t know if I was ready, but I worked myself back into it,” he said.
Once he settled into college life, Lemelin met a new group of friends and began to enjoy his courses. He even found that his experiences as a soldier could be related to what he was learning in class. In a world geography course, for instance, he was reminded of the fierce sandstorms his unit had faced in the desert. In an international marketing class, Lemelin pondered the uncertain economic future of Iraq. His year in Iraq also altered his world-view.
“My experience overseas makes me think I want to have input into changing something in the world,” said Lemelin, who is one of several students at PSU who have spent time on active duty in Iraq and other locations around the globe.
Lemelin enlisted in the Army National Guard during high school, calling it a “great part-time job” that allowed him to meet a diverse group of men and women of all ages. He attended boot camp the summer after high school graduation, then enrolled at PSU. While at college, Lemelin continued his National Guard service on weekends. Two years ago, when his unit was called to serve full-time in Iraq, he was shocked.
“I didn’t know what to say to my friends,” he said. “I believed it was impossible.”
When he first arrived in Tikrit, Iraq, Lemelin was a member of a military police unit responsible for convoy security and detainee operations. His unit was charged with transporting prisoners from one facility to the next, often on dangerous roads. Later, he was reassigned to an office job in an ornate palace Saddam Hussein had built for his mother. Lemelin says he felt very fortunate to be working within a secure building, rather than on the road or at the dangerous checkpoints where many of his fellow unit members were stationed.
While in Iraq, Lemelin had the opportunity to meet and talk with many people about the war. The diversity of attitudes among Iraqui citizens was significant, says Lemelin.
“You can’t put your finger on any one opinion. There were people who appreciated the soldiers and those who didn’t,” he said. “It was a completely different world.”
Lemelin’s National Guard enlistment ended in November. This year, he has been able to dedicate himself to his interests in music and academics. Lemelin plays the guitar, saxophone and mandolin, teaches music lessons to students at Laconia High School and practices with his band. His life as a civilian is completely different than it was just two years ago, but he will always remember the lessons he learned in Iraq, far from the classrooms of Plymouth State University.
“I had the best experience anyone could have in Iraq. I would never want to go back, but I was as lucky as anyone could have been,” he said.
Plymouth State University (PSU) is a regional comprehensive university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment for both undergraduate and graduate students. PSU offers 42 majors and 62 minors in programs that include education, business, humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences. The College of Graduate Studies offers coursework that promotes research, best practices and reflection in locations on- and off-campus as well as online. For non-traditional students, PSU’s Frost School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers working professionals opportunities to pursue an undergraduate degree by attending classes in the evenings, weekends and online. Located in a beautiful New England setting, Plymouth State University has been recognized as one of the “Best in the Northeast” by The Princeton Review.