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Academic Firefight By: Peter Collier
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 08, 2007

When Jason Walter was fighting against insurgents in Iraq he never dreamed that he’d come home and have to fight against teachers and administrators at Bloomsburg University on his way to a degree there.  But during the past several months he has been an army of one battling to make sure that no other student will be penalized, as he has been, for having served his country and continuing to be on alert.

Growing up in Muncy, Pennsylvaia, Walter knew from the time he was a teenager that he wanted to be in the military.  His mother had qualms, but his father enthusiastically backed Walter’s decision to enlist in the Army Reserves’ “split option” program at the age of 17.  Under this program, he did basic training in the summer of his junior year of high school and then, after graduating in 2002, spent a summer doing his individual training.  He considered going on active duty as an officer, but thought that he should get some college first and enrolled at Bloomsburg, a state school 45 minutes from his family’s home that September.


Over the next two years, Walter’s education would twice be interrupted as he was called up for two tours of active duty.  The first time came in the spring of 2003, midway through his freshman year, when his unit was mobilized for six months stateside duty.  He had to start his studies all over again at Bloomsburg in September 2003 and was taking courses for his political science major when volunteered for Iraq shortly before Christmas. 


By the following spring, Walter was stationed in Iraq at a logistical support area codenamed Anaconda, near a small town called Balad, 60 kilometers from Baghdad.  He was in a transportation company, but saw enough infantry action to be awarded a combat action badge.  Anaconda took more fire than any other base in Iraq; the GIs there referred to it as “Mortaritaville.”  Walter’s closest call came one day when he was walking to the PX and an enemy 127mm rocket hit within a few feet of him. Three of his buddies were killed and 27 were wounded.


Walter’s unit returned home in the spring of 2005.  He was still in the reserves and took some time to reorient himself and try to understand what he had seen and done in Iraq.  He waited until the fall to reenroll at Bloomsburg and try to give his sporadic higher education some coherence.   


Almost from his first day of class he was back in battle, this time fighting the culture war in the academy.  One of the courses required for his major was “Contemporary Political Ideologies,” taught by a woman named Diana Zoelle, which was supposed to survey Conservativism, Liberalism, Socialism, and other contemporary political ideologies and classifications.


Walter had crossed swords with Zoelle during his first year at Bloomsburg in 2003.  A one time visiting professor at the Institute for Peace Studies at Notre Dame University who made no secret of her liberal views, she had she asked this exam question: Why Is the War in Iraq Morally Wrong?  A fellow student of Walter who was also in the military and about to be deployed to Iraq, answered in effect that it wasn’t and got a “D.”


Now forced once more to take another course from Zoelle (“Contemporary Political Ideologies” was required for Political Science majors), Walter noted that she still made no effort to keep her ideological slip from showing.  She dispatched the subject of Conversativsm with two cursory class sessions and then spent three weeks on Liberalism and four on Feminism.  He was also annoyed by her scornful asides about the military and its incompetence, and about Republican administrations’ oppression of the poor and military service members.  But he repeated a calming mantra during class sessions--“Everyone has a right to be stupid”—and reminded himself that he had gone to war exactly to support this right and the fatuous ideas that sometimes followed.


But soon the issue became personal.  Walter’s Army Reserve unit was located in Rockville, Maryland, a four hour drive from his home.  His once a month weekend reserve drill obligation began on Friday afternoon and ended on late Sunday, which meant that he would miss a couple of class sessions.  He went to Zoelle’s office and offered to produce a letter from his commanding officer authenticating his absence. “It’s not my fault that you have a reserve obligation,” Zoelle replied, adding that she would not excuse his absences.  She also refused Walter’s request to turn in assignments due Mondays early before he departed for drill, or to let him hand them in when he returned.  She said that he would be given a “0” for class participation and class assignments. 


Walter received a “D” for the class, which he was forced to repeat, thus giving him even more lost time to make up.  He went to the chairman of the department who threw up her hands and said, “It’s her class, not mine.”  He also went to the Bloomsburg administration (which refused to comment for this article) and was stonewalled there as well, although he pointed out that the federal Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act, which prevents anyone from being fired from his job while fulfilling military obligations, was an obvious precedent for a similar policy at the university that would prevent ideologues like Zoelle from punishing students like himself for doing their duty.


The citizens of the town of Bloomburg were outraged when an article about problems at the university appeared in the local paper as a result of an appearance by David Horowitz and inundated the university with hundreds of emails and letters of condemnation. And Walter himself has kept up the pressure on the school’s administration, beginning his own personal surge to bring Bloomsburg’s problems to light.   He is talking about his case to journalists and politicians in Pennsylvania and beyond and waging a public relations war according to his own rules of engagement.


“The university hates me,” he says. “If they could, they’d give me my degree right now just to get rid of me.  But I’m here and before I leave I’m going to make sure that Bloomsburg professors have to accommodate students who have military obligations and honor their service.  And then I’m going to work to make sure that every university in the country has to do the same thing.”

Peter Collier co-authored seven books with David Horowitz, including the widely read Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ‘60s. He is also the author of many other books including, biographies on the Fords, Rockefellers, and Kennedys.

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