ALEX COHEN, host:
Over the next few days, we'll be talking to people about the Iraq war and how it's affected the past five years of their lives - people like Thomas Sim.
Thomas is a 24-year-old Korean-American and he's a senior at the University of California Irvine, which is where I recently met up with him.
Five years ago, Thomas joined the Marines. He thought it would help him afford a good education and he says he wanted to be part of something special.
Mr. THOMAS SIM (University of California Irvine ): I was quite bored with school, so I assumed that it would be the wise place to go, knowing that you're kind of living history rather than reading it.
COHEN: Thomas was deployed to Iraq two years after enlisting. At the Al Taqaddum Airbase southwest of Fallujah, he loaded ordnance onto helicopters and did guard duty. He says at first it didn't really sink in that he was in the midst of a war.
Mr. SIM: It wasn't a giant shock of epiphany, like many people. Mine was very - it was very gradual. Even during when we got hit by rockets and mortars, it didn't really take until halfway through deployment where the insurgency starting peaking again and I realized that, you know, diving into the wet sand, I kind of realized, oh, you know, this is the real stuff.
COHEN: Thomas says he soon realized how different things were in Iraq compared to his life back in Southern California. The weather was unbearably hot, the landscape completely devoid of color. But there were some things that reminded him of home.
Mr. SIM: The mess hall in Al Taqaddum - they had that kimchi, which is a Korean dish. I was surprised they had it. It was awful, of course. But...
COHEN: What was the hardest part for you about being there?
Mr. SIM: Ooh. The worst moments were, even when you're with what you believe to be the greatest friends you ever had, even moments like that you feel a very strong sense of loneliness. You kind of feel very alone because - especially when coming back, you kind of realize that life doesn't stop for people back home when you're out there, even though your life does. And that was difficult for me.
COHEN: Thomas came back to California in 2006 and started going to school at UC Irvine - a huge campus with about 25,000 students. He says the transition from soldier to student was tough.
Mr. SIM: You lose a lot of connections when you come back. I remember I lost contact with a lot of friends and I kind of lost - had some distance between my family because, you know, people change during war, and so I had to kind of rebuild that social connection.
People don't realize, but social skill takes practice to maintain, and when you're with the same, you know, same eight guys for, you know, for two years and you come back to a culture that is the antithesis of military culture - that in itself is another obstacle.
COHEN: How do students here - how do they react to you as a former soldier?
Mr. SIM: They ask me the usual questions. They ask me how was it or, you know, what did I do. Some people are more direct. Oh, did you kill anyone or did you do anything crazy?
COHEN: What do you answer when they ask that?
Mr. SIM: Usually I just humor them because it's question that comes up - comes up so much where I kind of get sick of it. And it's kind of a demeaning question to me, not only to myself but to the speaker as well.
COHEN: Sometimes it's easier, he says, to relate to fellow Iraq war vets on campus. And Thomas says there are quite a few of them here. It's easy to spot them, he says. They are the guys using their military-issued backpacks to cart around their books.
Thomas and several of his veteran buddies on campus are part of a nationwide group working towards revamping the GI Bill. As it stands now, the GI Bill pays at most $9,600 per year for college, even though the average cost of a public university runs over $16,000 a year - and that's for in-state students.
Mr. SIM: Back in World War II, and the veterans came back with the GI Bill, you were supposed to be able to cover your entire education, books, you know, even housing. Here it's not the case. If you want to go to a good school, the GI Bill is, you know, to be blunt, it's chump change.
COHEN: One of the reasons you joined the Marines was to help pay for an education. Have you been getting the help that you need?
Mr. SIM: I have been getting the help but it's not the total help that I had come to believe in. And I get my monthly benefits but I can't say that the GI Bill has helped me completely because school is very expensive, and as much as the GI Bill helps, I still have to rely on myself again.
Unidentified Man #1: I'll just summarize a few of the...
COHEN: Thomas is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Conflict Resolution. He takes classes like this one in U.S. foreign policy.
Unidentified Man #1: So that in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War, when you get this huge attempt to re-examine the whole American involvement...
COHEN: He says Iraq comes up quite a bit in his classes but he's surprised how little students talk about the war outside of class.
Mr. SIM: I, you know, I would rather have someone, you know, even an anti-war image. I'd rather have someone come up to me and start, you know, ranting to me, even though I would, you know, fully disagree, I would rather confront that than confront, you know, a shrug a shoulder thing - oh, Marines, okay, that's cool - and then kind of walk away with their iPod.
COHEN: Thomas Sim is still in the Reserves. I asked him if he thinks he'll be sent back to Iraq. He says he doesn't think so, but says he'd never say never.
Mr. SIM: I mean you never know what will happen. And I could be gone before next quarter starts.
COHEN: That was UC Irvine student and Iraq war veteran Thomas Sim. Tomorrow our coverage of the five-year anniversary of the war will continue with a conversation with General David Petraeus. He's the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
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