Northern Michigan University students in two freshman seminar classes were visibly surprised and impressed recently to learn there was a Purple Heart recipient in their midst. Nursing major Ben Fladung, who volunteers as a teaching assistant to NMU Professor Faith Edwards, shared his 2004-05 experience serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. It was an appropriate segue to the academic service learning project he inspired: students writing holiday cards to troops stationed overseas.
“I can’t tell you how much the little things mean to those serving far from home,” Fladung told the students. “It may not seem like a lot, but we were on call seven days a week. We were always working and never really had time off. So when you’re sitting in a hole in your sleeping bag and you open a letter written by a stranger from the United States who took the time to express thanks for the work you’re doing over there and the sacrifices you’re making, it really helps your morale. Appreciation goes a long way.”
Fladung, a Marquette native and son of a Marine, was stationed at California's Camp Pendleton before receiving orders for Iraq. He was wounded during a U.S.-led effort to take control of the hotbed city of Fallujah. Fladung was driving a truck as part of a resupplying mission under the cover of darkness. A vehicle ahead of him struck a mound of dirt that wasn’t detected by night-vision gear and overturned, scattering its occupants. When the convoy stopped behind the accident, insurgents waiting in the dark began shooting. Fladung was knocked unconscious by an improvised explosive device, or IED. He was transported to safety by a medevac flight and was awarded the Purple Heart.
“I joined to serve my country because I felt it was my duty and I wanted to go overseas,” he said. “I didn’t follow the news that closely when I signed up, so I wasn’t doing it for political reasons or anything like that. It was unreal to witness the lifestyle of people there. They were in a bad situation and not by their own choice. Young girls had acid thrown in their faces for trying to go to school. Some people didn’t even have running water. The U.S. did some things to improve their lives, like installing wells and building schools. There were definitely ups and downs, but I would serve again in a heartbeat.”
After completing four years of service, Fladung left the military and returned to the Upper Peninsula. He worked at a mine before enrolling in the nursing program at NMU. Due to the traumatic brain injury he sustained in Iraq, Fladung took the second semester off to undergo surgery in Pittsburgh to address a blood vessel that had been pressing against his fifth cranial nerve.
His faculty adviser, Edwards, said the UN100 service-learning project carries more significance now that the students know Fladung’s story. “They may not have the life experience of being over there, but they can demonstrate a level of empathy for people who are away from loved ones as they get ready to celebrate the holidays with their families,” Edwards said.
Student Maureen Sullivan agreed: “Now that I’ve heard how much it means to receive a letter, I really like this idea. I wrote in my card that I’m from NMU and I appreciate their courage. Because of what they do, we’re allowed to live a life of luxury compared to what they experience. It’s nice to be reminded of that. And even though I don’t know them, I appreciate what they’re doing.”
The cards will be delivered to Sherry Nutt from Gwinn, who has been sending packages to the troops since 1991. The UN100 classes are also collecting items to fill care packages—everything from socks, snacks and batteries to hand warmers, lotions and magazines. For information on donating to the project, contact Edwards at 227-2864 or firstname.lastname@example.org.