Like many students across the nation, junior Ehren Wynder joined the U.S. Marine Reserves straight out of high school with thoughts of heroism and brotherhood in mind. However, these ideals were dismissed during the course of his deployment and time of service in Afghanistan.
“I wanted to join the military as a junior in high school, and my parents were not for that,” Wynder said. “They were both in the military, and they knew what was going to happen.”
Being a reservist – rather than a wholly active member of the military – was a compromise between Wynder and his father.
“He really wanted me to go to college and this was my way of doing both,” he said.
After Wynder completed high school, he went through three months boot camp in San Diego, Calif. He then completed the necessary schooling in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to become a Motor Transport Officer.
Once his military education was completed, he enrolled at the university for the fall 2011 semester.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Wynder said, “but in the back of my mind, I thought that I was going to go be able to go college without interruption and that everything was going to go smoothly.”
However, that wasn’t the case. In January 2012, Wynder was told his reserve unit was mobilizing and going to Afghanistan.
“We mobilized in April 2012, so I lost all of my credits for my spring semester,” said Wynder. “We were in Afghanistan from August 2012 to February 2013.”
The university refunded him for the unfinished semester, and professors were supportive. But that didn’t make the situation any better.
When he arrived in Afghanistan, he was surprised to find their mission was to move supplies and construct another fort operating base.
“We are all told here at home that we were supposed to be leaving that area, and then when we got there, we found out that we were only strengthening our presence in the area,” Wynder said.
The issue he took with strengthening military presence was how invasive and disrespectful it seemed to be.
“We got ready to build a base on top of a hill where somebody buried their loved ones,” he said, “and we paved roads going straight through farmers’ fields.”
Another prospect that perturbed Wynder was how similar the U.S. Military Forces and the Taliban really were.
“It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong over there,” Wynder said. “It’s all about winning the hearts and minds of people and trying to get them to join our side. If we are the good guys, why do we have to persuade them that we are the good guys?”
One of Wynder’s friends at another base was ordered to launch a missile at a child because they thought he might have been recruited by the terrorist army. The missile killed the boy, his two friends and an elderly man who were in the general area as well.
“When I came home, I was bent and completely sour to the whole notion of the marine core,” Wynder said. “If they are okay with living the way they are, I don’t see why we have to force our versions of democracy on them.”
Wynder says that the summer after his return from Afghanistan, he did a lot of soul searching.
“I was broken, and I didn’t want to be identified as a marine anymore,” he said. “The only thing that I could really lean on was my Christian faith but even that needed to be reevaluated.”
When Wynder started classes at the university again in the fall of 2013, he decided to specialize in journalism so that he could investigate and shed light on different current events and issues.
“The first communications classes I took for my major really helped me to begin to understand myself and other people better,” he said. “People don’t communicate the same way and understanding that allowed for me to understand the Islamic perspective better.”
Wynder attributes his current peaceful mindset to professors who have supported him since his return home from deployment.
“It helped that I had professors who weren’t caught up in the idea of servicemen being heroes,” he said. “Wearing a uniform and having a gun doesn’t make anyone a hero. I didn’t want to get a pat on the back and a ‘thank you for your service.’ I haven’t done anything to deserve that.”
Wynder’s professors and search for internal reconciliation with what had happened in Afghanistan eventually led him to the least likely of places for a returning soldier to visit – an Islamic mosque.
“I ended up going to a mosque in Fort Wayne and just baring everything to them,” said Wynder. “It took me more courage to go in there than it did to go to Afghanistan.”
Wynder was welcomed into the mosque and some of the local Muslim men and women listened to his struggles and internal conflict.
“They are wonderful people,” Wynder said. “It meant a lot to them to hear of someone going [into the U.S. Military] believing that Muslims were the enemy and coming out thinking of Muslims as brothers and sisters.”
After a length of time associating with the local Muslim populations, Wynder has come to believe that their image has been warped by society into an aggressive and oppressive enemy.
“When you recognize how similar they are and you see them as people,” he said, “it tears apart all the constructs that this war is founded upon.”
Now, Wynder has come to a place of inner peace and openly says that what he thought and did in his early years with the Marine Reserves was wrong and ethnocentric.
“I’m thankful that I came here and that I had connections with people who helped me deal with everything,” Wynder said. “Now, I’m on a mission for peace. I believe that we need to understand people more.”
As he progresses throughout his degree and his profession, he wishes to encourage others to interact with individuals of different ethnicities and religions on a more intentional and regular basis.
“The hardest part of being a Christian is being like Christ,” said Wynder, “but that’s what we have to do. We need to strive to be more Christ-like, and that means that we need to start loving our neighbors and our neighbors are Muslims, Jews, and Hindus.”
Wynder is set to graduate in fall of 2016 with his journalism degree, but he is still under contract with the U.S. Military for over a year. He can still be called into action.
“There’s always a chance of being called in,” he said, “but I don’t expect it. Right now, I’m focusing on my studies, on being a better writer and on finding the truth.”
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Wynder is set to graduate in fall of 2016 with his journalism degree, but he is still under contract with the US Military for over a year. He can still be called into action.
“There’s always a chance of being called in,” he said,” but I don’t expect it. Right now, I’m focusing on my studies, on being a better writer and on finding the truth.”