NEWS- G.I. Jo: Back to school for Iraq vet

Jo Watts

Bruce Williams, a professor of Media Studies at UVA, remembers that it happened when his class was discussing the anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front. After one student questioned whether a classroom full of boys would really get up and join the Army en masse, a soft-spoken guy with a tie-dyed Dave Matthews t-shirt and a buzz cut spoke up from the back of the room. 

"It still happens today," said the voice. "Three of the guys in my unit went to high school together."

That's how the students learned that one of their classmates was Iraq war veteran Jo Watts, 25.

Williams has taught other students who have done tours of duty, but he says Watts is his first Iraq veteran. Williams says the presence of a soldier hasn't changed the way he teaches "War and the Media," but he admits that having Watts in the classroom keeps him on his toes.

"He makes me want to work a little harder," the former University of Illinois professor says.

The class focuses on viewing and discussing war films, most of which are very critical of warfare. How does the former soldier take the criticism?

"I find that I'm agreeing with almost everything being said. War is negative," Watts says. "There are very positive things to come out of it, but there's always the question of whether the end justifies the means."

Watts spent his first two years in college at a small liberal arts school without any real direction. In the fall of his sophomore year he made what would be a life-changing decision to join the National Guard. To this day Watts says he's not sure why he decided to join.

"It wasn't patriotism, it wasn't school money, it wasn't anything like that," he says. "I think more than anything else I just wanted to try something completely different that I wasn't sure I could do and that most people probably wouldn't expect me to do."

When Watts joined, it was a different National Guard, a pre-9/11 National Guard. In fact, he had just completed his basic training and had been home for about two weeks before the day that changed everything.

"I cautioned him that if something happened he could end up in active duty, but never in my wildest dreams, never in a million years, did I think he would end up overseas," says Watts' mother, Victoria.

After taking classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College, Watts had been accepted to UVA. But in August 2004, just three weeks before he was supposed to transfer and begin classes, he got a call from his Guard unit saying they were being deployed. Watts spent that Christmas with his family, and by New Year's Day 2005 he was in Iraq.

He signed up for stateside service and wound up in Iraq with the 2/111th Field Artillery, serving under the 118th Military Police Brigade on both the highest profile and highest priority mission in the country at that time.

"We were escorting convoys with detainees all over the country," Watts says. "We were carrying a couple hundred detainees a mission in unarmored buses, and you want to get them from point A to B as quickly as possible so nothing happens." 

The new generation of soldiers went into this war armed with technology: video cameras and on-location blogs. Watts was no exception.

"I carried a camera with me everywhere I went and documented as much stuff as possible," he says. "There were parts of it we did like a reality television show, and we'd just talk about what was going on."

 But his blog was shut down by the Pentagon after only a couple of months because, he says, he was told he was releasing information essential to the mission.

"If you're going to come up with an excuse to shut somebody down, come up with something better than that," Watts says. 

He believes it came down to two things. 

"We had a couple of incompetent officers on the post, and I called them out on it in very unflattering terms. That to them was unacceptable because it amounted to insubordination," Watts says. "The other thing was that we had had a couple of pretty bad incidents happen on post that I wrote about and said, 'This is what happened, draw your own conclusions.'"

For example, though Watts was not aboard, he wrote about an incident in which a convey from his company ran over a little girl in the road. At the time it was standard operating procedure not to stop for anything to avoid giving insurgents an opportunity to attack the convoys.

"It's a sad thing– you don't want to run over her, but if you stop, the casualties could be even worse," Watts says. "The truck just barreled right over her."

The military saw the information in the blog as "not something the people at home need to be reading" and "bad PR."

Watts says that with his blog he was trying to give people the bigger picture of what was going on and not just detail any specific incident.

"I guess I was trying to put a new twist on the old statement 'war is hell,'" Watts says. "There is no right, there is no wrong; you're here, and you do what you have to do."

Watts left Iraq late in November 2005 after 11 months of service.

 "I think that [the transition] is more traumatic than any of the experiences over there," he says. 

For the most part, soldiers came home and picked up their lives where they had left off. 

But "Five to six months later, which coincides with the time I came back to school this past September," he says, "is when everybody started noticing how different we were and how differently we viewed the world around us."

Around the time he started taking classes at UVA, Watts developed horrible anxiety.

"I mean to the point where I'd have anxiety attacks where I didn't sleep for three days at a time" he says. "It's all these things you would never think about as post-traumatic stress."

Two mental changes since his return have made school a little tougher. Watts no longer feels comfortable sitting in rooms with people behind him, and he no longer likes to speak up in class.

"I have no problem going to the professor's office or with a one-on-one conversation, but I feel that I'm still making the adjustment back to the classroom and don't feel comfortable in that environment yet," he says.

Watts says his outlook on college and the advantage of higher education has definitely changed since returning to school. 

"I was in college because college is what you do after high school," he says. "Now I'm in college, and I view it almost as a job: you get up in the morning, you go to class, you do your job, you do it well, you go home."

He will graduate next year with a Bachelor's degree in English and hopes to write and work in public policy.

When people find out Watts is an Iraq vet, they have two main questions.

"What's it like over there?"

"It's another world," he answers simply.

The second question proves a little more difficult: "Are we making a difference?"

"I don't know" he answers. "Maybe in 20 or 30 years when the kids are grown."

Once again he thinks of a little Iraqi girl, but this time it is 11-year-old Saha who befriended him and his unit. She was always waiting by the road with a goat on a green leash to receive toys and candy when the soldiers passed by.

"By that time the children were familiar with the rotations and knew we would be leaving soon," Watts says. "She looked down and shuffled her feet and then gave me a note and ran away."

The note was written in Arabic; when Watts had it translated, it read, "We love you, not just because you give us sweets. We just do."

Watts says regardless of people's political opinions about the war, they're usually appreciative of his service.

"Even if they don't agree with what I did, they still usually thank me for risking my life."



A good story. What is Watts going to do after graduation?

It is good to hear about Jo. We haven't heard from him since his blog was discontinued. If he will graduate in English, he must have figured out how to get his papers in on time. (An inside struggle.) We wish him the best and know that he will overcome his demons.