MARQUETTE - Students in Northern Michigan University Professor Faith Edwards' UN 100 course are used to seeing senior nursing major Ben Fladung during class. He is Edwards' teaching assistant, after all.
But they learned something new about him last week as he spoke to both nursing-centered sections of the class about his service as a sergeant in the Marines during the Iraq war.
Fladung, 27, is a Purple Heart recipient.
Faith Edwards, who is a Northern Michigan University nursing professor, sorts through cards and donations that will be sent out to overseas troops for the holidays. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
Edwards asked Fladung to speak about his time overseas as a part of an academic service learning project the students are involved in. The project has students writing letters and cards to soldiers overseas for the holidays.
"Maybe through Ben's story, they can know what it means (to be supported) and why this crazy war is going on," Edwards said.
Fladung, whose father was also a Marine and served in Vietnam, said he signed up for military service out of a sense of duty.
"Somebody's got to do the job," he said. "And if I'm going to join the service, the Marines are the best."
Fladung was stationed at California's Camp Pendleton before shipping out to Iraq, where he was wounded during a U.S.-led effort to take control of the city of Fallujah.
He was driving a truck as a part of a resupply mission when the vehicle ahead of him struck a mound of dirt that was undetected by night vision gear and overturned.
When the convoy stopped, insurgents waiting in the dark began to shoot and Fladung was rendered unconscious by an improvised explosive device.
Edwards said part of the reason she asked Fladung to tell her students about his time as a soldier was his humble way of speaking about what happened to him. It's not something he brags about, she said.
"You look at Ben, and you would never think he was a Marine, or that he had a traumatic brain injury," Edwards said. "He's just not that kind of guy I want my students to know that everybody has a story."
Fladung's commitment to the mission in Iraq was also a motivating factor in starting this letter-writing project. She said she often hears soldiers who've been injured say they would go back, and thought that hearing support from civilians was a good way to boost morale.
"I've just been humbled by these service guys who come back without legs, who come back blind and say, 'I'll go back and defend my country,'" Edwards said.
Edwards said she has personally been sending letters to overseas soldiers for years, starting with soldiers in Vietnam.
Edwards said all her students know how important family is, and she hoped this exercise would allow them to understand what it might be like to be an overseas soldier during the holidays.
"I was so impressed and yet humbled with this duty," Edwards said. "I'm always trying to teach my students a level of empathy where you can understand people."
During his tour in Iraq, Fladung said mail was a much-welcomed reprieve from the action.
"You don't get a lot of contact besides the guys you're with," he said. "To get a letter from home, it's hard to explain what it feels like. A thank you goes a long way."
At one point, Fladung said an entire third grade class had sent a posterboard to the troops, with all of their signatures on it.
"I'm not sure if they knew exactly what they were doing," Fladung said. "But it's nice to show the support that is out there."
Though he thought the project would interest the UN 100 students, Fladung said he was surprised by the overwhelming enthusiasm some of them showed.
"Some girls in the class had six, seven, eight letters written," he said. "Some even said they were going to write more letters."
The cards and letters will be delivered to Sherry Nutt from Gwinn, who has been sending packages to the troops since 1991.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.