From Bagram To Boulder: A Sergeant's Experience at CU-Boulder

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • ANDREA RAEL HuffPost Citizen Reporting

Produced by HuffPost's Citizen Reporting Team

If not for their slightly more erect posture, the pockets of young veterans at the University of Colorado in Boulder would blend in seamlessly among the throngs of students. But, as veterans of Middle Eastern wars, their unique life experiences can give them unique perspectives in their education.

Having landed back in the states only recently to continue his education, Ben Prichett of Grand Junction, Colo. is currently enlisted in the army reserves as a Sergent E-5. He is a 24-year-old senior political science major at the university, and his area of focus is the Middle East. He was stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan for 12 months and says he believes the U.S. is in a war it can't win, and that it's frustrating many Americans aren't very informed about the war in the first place.

"It's disheartening to see the ignorance. Blind patriotic support is the reason we are in the conflict and why it's going on for so long. And a misplaced sense of liberalism that we have to be 'moral' to the Afghans. They are fundamentally a different people from the Westerners, and that rift is non-transversal," Pritchett said.

The bright smile that frequently lights up Prichett's unshaven face belies the straightforwardness of this frank statement. He is a self-described minimalist who loves rock-climbing, and joined the army reserve to finance his education. He says he knows at least a dozen other army reserves who were stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan, who've also been bravely transitioning from their construction of sandcastles to snow-white diplomas at CU.

Probably as a result of his army training, Prichett sits up straighter in class than the average sleepy-eyed college student. Those slouched comfortably around him turn almost zombie-like upon facing the chalkboard at the front of the room in a "Topics in Islamic Development" class. But those same students could hardly help sitting to attention when he showed up to class with a more eccentric group presentation on Afghanistan than may have been expected.

In order to present a realistic profile of Afghanistan for the class, Prichett showed up dressed head to toe in Afghan tribal clothes from regions in which he was stationed. He wore a brown, flat-topped, wool "Pawkul" hat and a tan wool-textured poncho--both of which he personally acquired from Afghanistan. He laid out several similar tribal hats onto the podium, and launched into an impassioned discussion on the complex network of competing tribal loyalties within the state.

During his presentation, CU students leaned forward in their seats and curiously passed around Prichett's collection of Afghan hats curiously. He engaged the room with his confidence, making rapid motions with his hands and pointing to projected maps to show where differing tribes centered. He then explained to the class that loyalties in the region of Afghanistan were multi-tiered and hierarchical.

"It depends. Typically it's brother with brother, then cousin and cousin, and the tribes have a very complex relation within the actual state," Prichett answered a student's question.

Despite Prichett's academic interest in the region, he remains highly skeptical about the potential for peace in Afghanistan.

"The Pashtuns will never cede control of the government to any of those [other] groups...The whole issue is irreconcilable. There is no answer.... It's just an excuse for corruption. From what I have seen, Democracy and a Muslim state cannot coexist. They're definitely interested in peace [but] they don't want to create something new."

Typically when class ends, there's a loud rustling of papers as students scoop up their books and fall into the gravitational pull suddenly encompassing the door. But when the hour ended during Prichett's presentation, the professor was actually heard reminding the students that they could leave. Since there wouldn't be another class meeting in the room, many students--and even the professor--elected to stay and ask Ben questions which he answered heartily.

Returning to the United States has been somewhat of a mixed blessing. His educational focus has been on a region that he claims he still cannot fully understand. He has found bitterness with the Islamic culture, and yet he embraces its history through a unique combination of personal experience and scholarly analysis.

Against this backdrop of his journey, Prichett is simply glad to be home and to rediscover familiarity. Not only does he claim to have a greater appreciation for the homeland, but he also says he was able to understand that there were some things Afghanistan would simply never have. "When I first got back it was definitely a culture shock. A veil was lifted from my eyes. For Afghans everything was handmade, and there are things here they will probably never have."