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'Beyond the realm of possibility'
Dressed in jeans and a green Army T-shirt, David Emme, a wounded veteran of the Iraq war, sat in a Muhlenberg College classroom Wednesday night discussing economic theory with classmates.
Three years ago, talking, reading, even thinking were difficult for the 35-year-old retired Army sergeant from Lehigh Township, who suffered a brain injury when a roadside bomb exploded near his truck.
''The fact that he is going to college and getting A's seems beyond the realm of possibility,'' said Rudy Ehrenberg, Muhlenberg's retired dean of students and Emme's mentor through the Wounded Warrior Project, a volunteer program to help combat veterans ease back into life.
Founded three years ago by a group of retired combat veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project reaches out to patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The volunteers have helped thousands of soldiers negotiate the Veterans Affairs benefits system and find career counseling and internships, and encouraged them to go back to school for vocational training or to seek a degree.
''We're there to help them understand that there is a future,'' Ehrenberg said.
Lee Miller, one of the program's co-founders, arranged an internship for Emme at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington. Emme was offered but declined a full-time job there because he was determined to reconnect with his father in the Lehigh Valley and to go back to school, Miller said.
Emme had already been talking with Heather Bernard, an academic adviser for the American Council on Education, who works exclusively with soldiers at Walter Reed. Bernard planted the idea of a Muhlenberg education in Emme's head. She offered to help him with the application process, but Emme was a self-starter who needed little help, she said.
''He was remarkably anxious to get moving,'' she said. ''Honestly, it astonished me. If I'd been in his shoes, I'd have sat down and done nothing.''
Emme nearly died on Nov. 19, 2004. A supply sergeant for a Stryker brigade, he had volunteered for a security mission to transport police recruits from Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq to Mosul, 30 miles east. Emme was manning a .50-caliber machine gun on one of the trucks in the convoy.
Just minutes into the mission, the roadside bomb ripped into Emme's truck, wounding both him and the driver, Spc. Michael Brerezky, who risked his life to get Emme to an armored vehicle.
In any war before this one, Emme's wounds would have been fatal. His heart stopped twice as he was en route to the operating table. Lifesaving surgery included removal of what Emme described as a ''hand-size piece of skull'' to relieve the pressure of severe brain swelling.
His left eardrum was shattered. There were bomb fragments in his left eye, his cheek and his brain. During surgery, some had to be left behind.
Emme lay in a coma for 10 days at Walter Reed. Recovery included insertion of a plastic skull plate after the swelling subsided. Then he had to relearn how to talk.
Some of the effects of Emme's injury have not gone away, and they may not. There is memory impairment, particularly with names of people and, in a college setting, buildings. He is sometimes confused with the meanings of words. There are frequent headaches and sleep disorders.
But there is no quit in Emme.
Beginning his studies this semester through the Wescoe School, Muhlenberg's program for adult students, Emme has already completed a class in microeconomics and earned an A. He is now enrolled in five classes, including the business ethics class where he debated the merits of Milton Friedman's economic philosophy. He is studying toward an associate degree in business administration.
Emme has contemplated started his own business, but he is also thinking about becoming a clergyman. Philosophy and ethics fascinate him.
''He's got a great attitude,'' said Miller, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. ''If he's challenged, that's good because he likes to be challenged.''
Veterans often rise to educational challenges and become top-notch students, Bernard said.
''When you get them into college, they are pretty much more durable and more creative and weather everything better than a lot of kids who haven't been through as much,'' she said.
Emme gives a lot of credit to the faculty and staff at Muhlenberg. He said he was concerned because he had been told that college environments are unfriendly to veterans and to the politically conservative. But he has not found that to be the case at the college in Allentown. ''I have found it to be very veteran-friendly,'' he said.
Ehrenberg, who talks to Emme regularly, reached out to former colleagues at Muhlenberg, asking them to watch over the Iraq war veteran. But he said he never doubted that Muhlenberg's faculty and administrators would be ''caring and generous.''
''David deserves all the credit for what he's accomplished,'' Ehrenberg said. ''The way he deals with things, it's been inspiring to me to be around him,'' he said. ''He's a hero.''
Online information about the Wounded Warrior Project can be found at http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org