Some undergraduates interrupt their college careers to spend their junior years abroad. You might say Debra Kolasienski did that – if your count a medical discharge from the Army after spending 10 months in one of the hottest Iraq war zones as a year abroad.
Debra Kolasienski took a gamble when she joined the Army National Guard in 2000. She committed to a six-year tour of duty plus an additional two-year extension. The first six years would be on a U.S. military base. During the final two years, she could be sent overseas if the Army needed her anywhere else in the world.
“The military would pay for my bachelor’s degree and my housing during college, so for me, it was worth it,” she says.
However, according to the terms of her contract, the Army could extend her tour of duty overseas for another two years. So, as these stories go, in the 11th month of the last year of her enlistment, Uncle Sam “picked up her option” for another two-year hitch. Not long thereafter, Kolasienski parked herself at Forward Operating Base Prosperity in Iraq, near the Baghdad International Airport
It actually sounded like a cushy deal: FBO Prosperity occupied the six-story, million-square-foot, 200-room Al-Salam Palace, the main presidential palace of Saddam Hussein, which was taken over by U.S. coalition forces in 2003. Although it still maintained accouterments like lined marble floors with hundreds of thousands of hand-cut pieces, granite walls, and ceilings that also have hundreds of thousands of hand-carved and inlaid hand-painted flowers, the palace was significantly damaged during early bombings and, of course, stripped of most of its opulence by looters. Also, while the term “near the airport” may mean something positive in real estate promotion in the travel-happy Atlanta area, in Iraq it means a locale so dangerous that the planes must circle over the tarmac in a tight, fast spiral while landing to avoid being shot down.
For Kolasienski that was “shock and awe” indeed.
“I grew up an Army brat with a career military dad,” she says,” but nothing you imagine mentally matches war.”
Stateside, Kolasienski was a supply, logistics and human resources specialist at Warner Robins Air Force Base. Her unit was composed of truck drivers, so she inspected their vehicles to guarantee they had the best armor available. And she checked armaments as well, making sure all guns, ammo and weaponry were working well and stored securely. In 2005, the Army awarded Kolasienski a Meritorious Service Medal for leadership and exceeding all job requirements.
However, as a military reservist, she had a “day job” working with a fast food franchising company in the south Atlanta suburbs. Kolasienski served as regional manager overseeing three McDonald’s restaurants with more than $4 million in annual revenues. “I was able to increase their earnings and customer retention by working with the employees, training them on how a small but crucial change can improve productivity and customer service,” she says.
Seeking to bolster her employment prospects in some other field, however, she began working toward her bachelor’s degree in 2003 at Georgia Military College. Still, it is a source of some amusement to her that she earned her first “degree” when her boss sent her to Illinois for leadership training at McDonald’s Hamburger University.
The war was different.
“Debra was the logistics specialist for our unit when we deployed to Baghdad, Iraq from November 2008 through July 2009 providing High Threat Protective details to the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service, Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, and the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq,” wrote Assistant Installation Emergency Manager Neil Vincent on Kolasienski’ s Linked-In profile. “Her planning and organizational skills were critical to the sustainment of 162 soldiers, 50 armored combat vehicles and over $33 million in U.S. Army and Department of State equipment.”
Although she was stationed inside the heavily guarded Green Zone, getting supplies sometimes required her to travel by Humvee convoy to Baghdad markets. Tragically, those markets were often hit by terrorist bombs. Kolasienski learned to focus on the task and block out the fear of IEDs – the improvised exploding devices that have been so deadly in the war.
Ironically, the greatest threats to her personally were from fellow U.S. soldiers. She says that most soldiers she met were intelligent and honorable, but a few resented females in the military. That resentment sometimes exploded into violence. In May 2009 a male U.S. soldier attacked Kolasienski.
She was in a medical clinic recovering when another U.S. soldier walked in and shot four soldiers and a Navy officer dead. As his trial unfolded in April 2013, he testified that he did not know his victims and had hoped to kill a doctor he disliked.
The Army gave Kolasienski a medical discharge in 2009. She was ready to embrace civilian life. But a new owner bought out the company where she had been working. Since he already had a regional director, the war veteran Kolasienski lost her job.
She transferred her GMC courses to Brenau in 2011. In 2012 she was one of the first three graduates from the South Atlanta/Fairburn campus. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a 3.4 GPA.
Technically, she falls into that statistical category of recent four-year college graduates without a job with an unemployment rate that far exceeds the overall average unemployment rate.
But she is not worried, nor is she demanding her money back.
“It was completely worth the effort, professionally and personally,” Kolasienski says of the sacrifices she made to get her undergraduate degree. “It was tough earning it, but I am a more attractive job candidate with a degree than I would be without one.”
She also has a distraction from that unemployment business: a bubbly 6-month old son, Christian, who’s inspiring her to be all that she can be as a mother.
However, he dream job now is out of the fast food industry recruiting and retraining talented workers for large corporations or counseling students who need a guide who completed a trail they are about to begin. She is confident the Brenau degree will help her attain her goal.
“I cannot emphasize enough,” she says, “how much getting an education at Brenau helped me recover my confidence, and how much it helped me get my bearings in civilian life.”