Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

Messenger: Marine wants to help college students develop empathy for veterans

  • 0
James Petersen

James Petersen hands candy to Iraqi children in 2003. Photo courtesy of James Petersen. 

On his first day in Abu Ghraib, the perils of war were pounded into James Petersen’s psyche minute by terrifying minute.

It was April 20, 2004. The Marine from Collinsville found himself in Iraq five years after he had enlisted.

“We took over 40 mortars that day,” Petersen said. At that point, most of the prisoners at the infamous camp were outside in tents. Twenty-two prisoners died. “Body parts were everywhere,” he said.

What he saw, felt and heard took its toll.

Petersen got out of the military in 2007 and went back to school at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He earned a bachelor’s degree, then ended up back in Iraq and Afghanistan as a military contractor between 2008 and 2013.

When he eventually returned to St. Louis, fits of anger and fear dominated his life.

He couldn’t enjoy Fair St. Louis because the fireworks caused flashbacks. The sound of the garbage truck slamming the Dumpster in the alley sent a chill down his spine.

Petersen, who is now 37, was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Like many soldiers who have returned from America’s longest-running wars in the Middle East, transition to regular life wasn’t easy.

“It’s really difficult to go from the battlefield to the classroom,” Petersen said.

Petersen is now a graduate student at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. As president of WUVets, a student group for veterans, he’s helped organize a Veterans Day event at the school’s Anheuser-Busch Hall. From 6 to 7:30 p.m., students will hear from a World War II vet, a Korean War vet and other combat veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will give the keynote address.

Petersen hopes his fellow students gain an understanding for how difficult it can be for veterans to make the transition to civilian life after experiencing so much violence.

“They’re like two separate worlds,” he says, comparing his time at war with life walking the marble halls of academia.

In Abu Ghraib, and in Fallujah, where American soldiers were constant targets, the tension was always high, Petersen said.

“You were like a dog in a cage getting poked at with a stick,” he said. “When you get back home, you still feel that way.”

Once home, Petersen said, he drifted. He had fits of bitterness and anger. Noises startled him. He lacked the sense of purpose that drove him while serving as a Marine during war time. It was at his wife’s urging that he sought help for his PTSD through the Veteran’s Administration.

“It changed my life,” Petersen said.

Over a period of a year, Petersen worked with doctors and nurses to overcome his fears. He talked over and over again about what he saw to help him become more comfortable in everyday situations. In a post-war military culture in which suicides have been high for more than a decade, Petersen became a success story.

Now he’s trying to help other veterans as he finishes his education.

Petersen works for St. Patrick Center, tracking down homeless veterans on the street and connecting them with services. He sees himself in the men that he meets, knowing that without the support of family, and the help of the VA, he could be in their spot.

Instead he’s working on a master’s degree in social work, going to class with students who, for the most part, are much younger than he is and who have had experiences that give them a different outlook on life.

On Friday, he hopes his classmates get a chance to expand their horizons, to see “veterans as their peers.”

“I hope that they look at the panel and see these guys as real people,” Petersen said. “I hope they have some empathy.”

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News


National News