First class in Wounded Warrior initiative walks down the hill

They’ve lost eyes.

One is missing a foot.

Chief warrant officer Ari Jean-Baptiste is hugged by his children Pria, 9, and Noah, 7, after their father was hooded in a master’s degree hooding ceremony Saturday at Kansas University. Jean-Baptiste is one of six soldiers in the Wounded Warrior Educational Initiative at KU who are graduating this weekend.

They’ve survived helicopter crashes and the detonation of improvised explosive devices.

But they will leave Kansas University with master’s degrees and go on to serve the U.S. military in ways they never would have imagined.

“These guys have sacrificed for their country,” said Adrian Lewis, director of KU’s Office of Professional Military Graduation. “They’re going to continue to do great things.”

KU’s first class of students from the Wounded Warrior Educational Initiative will formally graduate today. The program is a partnership between the U.S. Army and KU that gives soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan the opportunity to continue their education and their service to the country.

The six graduates were honored Saturday during a reception following the hooding ceremony for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Capt. Gates Brown limped across the stage of the Crafton-Preyer Theatre after receiving his hood.

The former platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division thought his military career was over when, while serving in Iraq in January 2007, the vehicle he was in drove over a mortar round that had been buried beneath the road.

“I knew right away I was hurt,” Brown said. “I didn’t know how bad it was. When it hit, I knew that something had happened, but shock had kicked in.”

He suffered fractures in his right leg, ankle and heel. Brown was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service. Today, he can add a master’s degree in history to his list of accomplishments.

Brown will go on to teach at the Command General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth.

“One of the strengths of this program is it gives alternatives to people who think their career in the Army might be over,” Brown said. “I want to show that if you are wounded, the Army is going to work with you. If you want to continue to serve, the Army will work with you to do that.”

Chief Warrant Officer Ari Jean-Baptiste thought his life was over when his helicopter crashed while on a reconnaissance mission in Iraq. Even though he shattered his ankles, suffered compression fractures in his back and is still dealing with chronic pain, Jean-Baptiste wanted to find a way to continue to serve.

Now, graduating from KU with a master’s degree in political science and going on to teach at Ft. Leavenworth, he says the Wounded Warrior Initiative is allowing him to carry out his mission. Lewis says it’s a win-win situation.

“There’s payback,” Lewis said. “They get their degree, then they still serve their country. The country benefits. They’re going back, and they’re still doing good things for their country — I mean, how do you beat that?”