Opinion & Editorial

A Midwestern Military Veteran’s Path to Graduate School

Angela Peacock served almost seven years in the military before returning to civilian life. Eager to find purpose, she transferred to the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College) at Washington University in St. Louis from her local community college and set to work on a degree in psychology. She graduated last summer and enrolled at WashU’s top-ranked Brown School of Social Work, where she will earn her master’s degree.

What led you to begin your tenure in the military?

After high school, I was going to Florissant Valley at St. Louis Community College and waiting tables. I thought, “This life is really boring,” and felt that I needed some kind of meaning. So, the military was an easy pick for me. I still love the military. I did it for six years and nine months and then medically retired for PTSD. I had to do a bunch of therapy and recovery from what I’d seen. School is part of my transition back into civilian society.

Angela Peacock

What was your role in the military while you were on active duty?

I was a tactical radio operator. We went into Baghdad in 2003 and served as the phone company. The rest of the time we drove around in convoys and tried not to get killed. Through environmental toxins, the water, and stress, I lost 40 pounds within a month. I got extremely sick and looked skeletal. My body went nuts. I kept working…because I was in Baghdad. What are you going to do? I was eventually flown out on a medical airlift to Germany and identified my illness as some sort of gastrointestinal bug that never went away, which was exacerbated by PTSD from being shot at and things like that.

What were your experiences there like? Is it hard to talk about now?

You mean, is it hard to talk about Baghdad? Today, when I talk about it, it feels like I’m telling a story. Seeing the kids in those war-torn conditions is what always got me. I remember I saw these two little girls in the desert when we were driving from Kuwait to Baghdad. There was nothing but sand for miles.

They had crystal-blue eyes—they must have been Kurds. And they were begging for food. They were standing in this hot sand with no boots, and I knew their feet must have been burning. It gives you a new perception. These people don’t have anything. And seeing civilians get injured—I saw one guy get beat up by six policemen once. And then it’s frustrating when you come home and people are like, “My dry cleaning’s late.” Sometimes I think, “I don’t want to be a veteran anymore. I want to be a civilian.” But you can’t just take it off like that.

You have an instant family in the military because you’re bonded by life and death. The person next to you is going to protect you because you’re going to protect them. It’s an unspoken bond. That’s why student veteran groups are such an interest of mine; it’s similar in that fellow students become instant family.

School has given me a purpose again. I want to help other veterans like me. I absolutely love WashU.”

What has been the importance of school in resettling into civilian life, and how has WashU contributed to your journey?

The classes are highly specialized, so instead of taking general psychology, abnormal psychology, or forensic psychology, I got my choice of superior professors and topics that really interested me. I also got to take some really cool writing electives. I became interested in psychology because I wanted to understand some of my own stuff, but also how the human mind copes with trauma, illness, and life. I am fascinated by the human mind. And now that’s evolved into a strong desire to work with other veterans. I felt like I had to heal the hard way.

The small class sizes at WashU were also awesome for me because I ask a lot of questions. A professor could be explaining obsessive-compulsive disorder or something like that, and I’ll have like, five or six questions. When you have that smaller class size, you’re able to get that personal attention and go deeper in the classes you have. Elsewhere, if everyone had five questions about every subject, you’d be there all day.

What were some of your favorite classes and areas of study?

The writing classes were my favorite, but I also loved this class called Research Methods. It’s designed to help you understand journal articles and peer-reviewed materials. For that class, we got to design our own experiment and write up the statistics for it—it’s what you’d do if you were making a research proposal. I liked the process of learning how research and statistics are done.

What’s your goal?

I originally wanted to do a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but I thought, “I’ve already been in school so long.” I was itching to really get into the real world, and I didn’t want five more years of school. A bunch of us students in the student veterans program were in the Brown School. I wanted to begin the process of watching veterans heal. I’m much more excited about the practical action component of social work. We also have to have experience and complete practicums for a couple of years before becoming eligible for private practice, but I’d love to work in the nonprofit sector. Something like that would be the goal.