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A Soldier's Journey from Iraq to Grad School

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A Soldier's Journey from Iraq to Grad School

The Impact of War

A Soldier's Journey from Iraq to Grad School

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're in the middle of what President Bush calls National Veterans Awareness Week, so we'd like to make you aware of a graduate student at the City University of New York.

Unidentified Woman: What are you going to take next semester?

Mr. DEMOND MULLINS (Iraq War Veteran): I don't know. It depends on what classes I see. I got to take at least three.

INSKEEP: Demond Mullins is chatting with a fellow student in the cafeteria.

Unidentified Woman: But I'm going to take wage and labor with Aronowitz.

Mr. MULLINS: Really?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. MULLINS: Aronowitz seems like he'd be an amazing person to take a class with.

Unidentified Woman: I think he's really excellent...

INSKEEP: This man who's making choices about his course load once made decisions about life or death.

Mr. MULLINS: I've got to write a 10-page paper...

INSKEEP: Mullins spent a year in Iraq. He was with the National Guard, and he's the latest American we're meeting this week as we talk with troops who've come home from the war. Mullins has found a degree of peace in graduate school.

Mr. MULLINS: Academia is - that's where I'm at. Right now school, books - Weber, Marx, Durkheim - that's my medication.

INSKEEP: That's his medication now. But if it's true that there are seven stages of grief, it's fair to say that Demond Mullins is going through several stages of adjusting to his new life. His military transport plane brought him back in the fall of 2005.

Mr. MULLINS: The first place I touched down in America was New Jersey, of all places - Fort Dix.

INSKEEP: People have seen that scene in movies where there's people waiting, there's a band playing. There's...

Mr. MULLINS: Yeah. There was none of that. There was none of that.

INSKEEP: What waited instead were a pair of white-painted school buses. Those buses would carry the surviving members of his National Guard unit back toward civilian life.

Demond Mullins is an African-American from Brooklyn. He's handsome enough that he once spent a year as a clothing model. He's romantic enough that he once followed a girl to Las Vegas. He was ambitious enough to join the National Guard in order to pay for college. And that was the life that Iraq interrupted.

When he tried to resume it, Mullins old friends kept asking questions.

Mr. MULLINS: Questions like, you know, so what was it like when, you know, when you shot someone? I don't know, that's kind of like - my experiences are not pornography for my friends or for anyone else, you know? I use the word pornography because I feel like it is just - I don't know, the exploitation of my personal experiences for someone else's entertainment.

INSKEEP: How did you answer?

Mr. MULLINS: Either I ignored the question or I would just say, you know, I don't want to talk about things like that, or just say, you know, I didn't shoot anybody, or whatever.

INSKEEP: He says he's not sure if he did shoot and kill anybody, though he knows exactly what he did at close range.

Mr. MULLINS: I mean I dehumanize people. I don't even know how many raids I did while I was there, but during raids you're throwing them up against the wall, you're tying their hands behind their back, you're dragging them out of the bed. You're dehumanizing them in front of their wives and their kids. And you know, the women are crying, the children are crying. And you're just like, whatever. Put a bag over their head or a blindfold, drag them into the Humvee. Certain exhibitions of violence on my part that, like, were probably unnecessary - were definitely unnecessary. But I was so - I was really stressed out and on the edge at the time, and I conducted myself like - like that.

INSKEEP: And when he returned from Iraq, Demond Mullins says he felt angry at himself. He broke up with his girlfriend. He spent days in his apartment.

Mr. MULLINS: I'm staring at the wall, not eating. You know, I lost, like, about 15 to 20 pounds. My friends still look at me and, like, what happened to you, you know. Definitely depressed to the point of being suicide - being suicidal. Yeah.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to ask this, but I just want to know how far it got. Did you get to the point of actually thinking about how you'd do it?

Mr. MULLINS: Well, you know, since I've been home, two of my friends died - one died recently and one died a few months before. The one who died a few months before the beginning of the summer, he shot himself - he shot himself in the face. And to me, that would be the only way that I was capable of doing it, because it was fast, you know, and it was a tool that I was very familiar with.

INSKEEP: Mullins got counseling from the V.A. He didn't like it, and didn't want to take medication. He did manage to resume college and get a degree and move on to grad school. Along the way, he also focused his anger; he spoke out against the war at marches and rallies.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Ground Truth")

Mr. MULLINS: I wanted to go to college so bad that I chose to put my life on the line and join the military.

INSKEEP: That's Demond Mullins as he sounded in an anti-war documentary called "The Ground Truth."

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Ground Truth")

Mr. MULLINS: When I think about the deaths of my comrades, I did at one point try to tell myself that they died for a reason. But I couldn't find that reason. That's why I'm here...

When I first started anti-war activism, it was because I felt guilty. You know, because I meet people, especially a lot of civilians on the street, and they say, oh, thank you for your service, thank you for protecting America. Like, what are you talking about? I wasn't protecting America. I was protecting myself and my buddies, you know?

INSKEEP: We mentioned that Demond Mullins is going through stages here. After he participated in the film, he felt less of a need to speak out. And by this semester at grad school most of his fellow students and at least one professor had no idea about his background.

Professor JOHN TORPEY (City University of New York Graduate Center): My name is John Torpey. I'm professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and I'm teaching Demond Mullins. I had no idea he was a veteran and it's just not something you would have ever known. And he seemed a little sheepish about people knowing it.

INSKEEP: The professor didn't know, even though Demond Mullins, who knows so much about war from personal experience, comes to class and speaks about social and political theories of war.

Mr. MULLINS: I mean it's very Orwellian, you know, like you have an outside threat, this perpetual war, and so the nation is constantly...

INSKEEP: He's actually leading this class discussion - learning by teaching.

Mr. MULLINS: The actions of the nation...

Unidentified Woman: I don't...

Mr. MULLINS: I want someone to argue with.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, I don't think so because it implies that the nation always acts as a single entity.

INSKEEP: You have gone and witnessed a society under tremendous stress - Iraqi society under tremendous stress and a little slice of America under tremendous stress.

Now that you're studying sociology academically, are you learning things and saying I recognize this? I now understand what was happening in that town at that time or in that base at that time?

Mr. MULLINS: Yeah. I mean I just had a class and everyone had to go around and basically state their interests, and I said mine is sociological theory. And the professor asked me, why? And I said basically it makes me feel powerful. But I think that people took that in the wrong way. It makes me feel empowered. I can understand the chaos that is society, the chaos that is life, through a theory. And I mean it's definitely not elementary, but in some way, yeah, I look at my experience in Iraq and I can understand it through theory.

INSKEEP: Are you the same person that was captured in that documentary?

Mr. MULLINS: Yeah, it was just a stage of my development. You know, I keep changing. I mean, when I came back from Iraq, I was just like anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-myself, you know? But it's time for me to move more into the direction of where my interests are going.

INSKEEP: You're just feeling less alienated.

Mr. MULLINS: I'm feeling more like I'm understanding this country, this society. And I don't want to scream against it. Right now I'd just like to study it.

INSKEEP: There was a time when Demond Mullins was screaming against his own life. For now at least, he seems to be studying that too.

MONTAGNE: You can see a video clip of Demond Mullins in "The Ground Truth" and hear the other stories in our series about soldiers returning from Iraq at

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