As a co-pilot gunner in a Kiowa helicopter high above an area near Kirkuk, Iraq, Ari Jean-Baptiste remembered the look of surprise in his pilot’s eyes.
They had just finished supporting an infantry platoon and were headed to support a convoy, when an engine malfunctioned and forced the two into a controlled crash landing.
Jean-Baptiste, a chief warrant officer, woke up later in a hospital bed with a shattered ankle, broken bones in his other foot and compression fractures in his lower back.
“My understanding is we are both lucky to be alive,” he said.
That was in March 2007, during his second deployment to Iraq.
Today, Jean-Baptiste is one of seven students enrolled in Kansas University’s Wounded Warrior program, a partnership between the university and the U.S. Army.
Wounded soldiers get their graduate studies at KU paid for by the Army, and, in return, they commit to a three-year position in the Army for every 12 months of education paid for, either as a civilian or military employee, often as a teacher.
It’s a pilot program, but all indications are things are going well, said Lt. Col. Warren Dewey, who’s leading the program for the Army.
He said in addition to the seven who signed up this year, five more plan to enter next fall. Some will be destined to teach at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, while others will be distributed in teaching roles across the Army.
“You’re dealing with people who have given a heck of a lot to their country, and they deserve the very best,” Dewey said.
Bill Steele, a manager of the program at KU, said that so far it’s been good for the participants, the Army and the school.
Steele said that many who come are initially anxious, but now the participants are largely meeting with success.
“They’ve been given a second chance by the Army, and we’re helping them along in that process,” Steele said.
Jean-Baptiste said his road to recovery was arduous at times, as he initially had to adjust to relying on others to perform even simple tasks, like getting out of bed to use the bathroom.
Today, he moves around well, he said, but suffers from chronic back pain.
At KU, he said, people generally understand and respect his situation.
In his research methods class, class members were giving presentations, and he said that the instructor gave him permission to leave if his pain got too intense.
“It was very touching and very moving,” Jean-Baptiste said. “Maybe it was just me being stubborn, but I stayed.”
He said he was glad he did, but he didn’t forget the gesture of kindness shown by his instructor and classmates.
“There’s a certain degree of respect and appreciation for what I’ve done and what I’m doing,” he said.
Born in Haiti, he grew up on the East Coast and was stationed in Hawaii. He admitted that he never felt that Kansas would be his eventual destination, but now that he’s here, he likes it. It’s a good place to raise a family, he said. His two children — Pria, 8, and Noah, 6 — attend school in Lawrence.
He’s studying in the political science department, pursuing courses involving security.
“Anytime you’re presented with the opportunity to go to school, it’s always a good experience,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I don’t think you can pass up the opportunity to teach.”
But, as he said, someone just doesn’t become a helicopter pilot overnight, and it’s not easy to make the transition from that life. Aviators form a tight-knit group, he said, and, no matter what else he does in life, that part of him remains.
“That’s something I still hold on to,” he said.