Touzani Seeks to Build Community for Veterans
As president of the University of Iowa Veterans Association (UIVA) for 2012-13, Greg Touzani wants to build a strong sense of community for all veterans on campus.
The former Army staff sergeant and infantry squad leader, who served two tours of duty in Iraq spanning 24 months, made his own transition from soldier to student in spring 2012.
The transition wasn't without challenges. Touzani, 27, brings with him memories of fellow soldiers and friends who lost both lives and limbs in the conflict. He's seen a lot, but he also knows he's fortunate and has a lot to give fellow veterans.
He says he also understands how important it is to find fellow veterans who can relate to what he's gone through and to connect them to resources on campus and in the community. Building a sense of community so veterans feel like they belong is critical, he says, to both their retention and success as students.
"It's like being on a sports team because you have that tight-knit group of people who are in the fight together," says Touzani, who as a junior pre-business major plans to double major in accounting and finance. "And, win or lose, you can always talk about it or you can remember experiences, good or bad. You're not the only one. Coming to college is a real culture change."
Touzani says he got involved with the UIVA because he wants to boost the involvement of student veterans.
"I was a leader in the military, too, and you always want to see people in charge that feel a sense of responsibility and accountability for what happens," he says. "The hardest thing is getting active student members and so our No. 1 goal is to build a community.”
Touzani adds that UIVA often partners with Team Iowa, another local group that helps veterans make a smooth transition from military to civilian life.
Resources, activities for veterans
Touzani comes on board as the university’s veteran population, and reputation for serving them well, continues to grow, presenting opportunities and challenges. The UI, named one of the Best Military Friendly Schools for four years running, has 518 student veterans on campus this fall, up from 475 in fall 2011, according to Larry Lockwood, assistant provost for enrollment services. There are an additional 350 UI staff and faculty veterans.
In August, Touzani partnered with John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center coordinator, to provide two separate orientation sessions for 60 new incoming student veterans. The group also plans social events such as organizing a UI veterans flag football team, which is named Red, White, and Boom.
All veterans and their spouses, partners, and family members are invited to a free barbeque, sponsored by the UIVA. The event will be 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, in Penn Meadows Park in North Liberty. Veterans do not need to be affiliated with the UI to attend.
The UIVA has also been involved in sponsoring film screenings, such as Invisible War, a documentary about rape in the military. Touzani says the office also organized a group outing to see the movie Act of Valor. The group started the Warrior Challenge 5K, an annual fundraising event for UIVA and the Wounded Warrior project.
Touzani also hopes to promote the UI Veterans Center, located in the first floor of the UI Communications Building, as a resource where student veterans can come by to study and find out about GI Bill benefits and other campus or community resources. The UIVA meets regularly and also sponsors events such as home buying seminar for veterans.
Global citizenry plants seeds to serve, travel
To understand the challenges Touzani and other student veterans face on campus, it's helpful to get a glimpse into what life is like in the military, Touzani says, though no two experiences are the same.
Touzani says his single mom was a huge inspiration and influence on his life and his decision to join the Army. Already a world traveler by the time he was 18, he had the opportunity to live in five different countries growing up, thanks to his mom's career as a consular officer with the U.S. Department of State working in foreign embassies around the world.
Touzani was born in Thailand and later lived in Saudi Arabia, Korea, the Philippines, Belgium, and the United States. His family lived in Virginia when his mom worked in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Seoul American High School on Yongsan Army Garrison, Seoul, South Korea.
"I was lucky as a young man to experience so many different cultures and countries firsthand," Touzani says. "My parents were divorced in 1990 when I was 5. My mom was a hero—single mom, four kids, and she was taking care of her mother, too, and had her career."
After graduating high school, Touzani attended a National Foreign Affairs Training Center foreign language course in Arlington,Va., studying French. After he finished the course, his mom was stationed in Brussels, where he spent the summer interning at the U.S. embassy. He then returned to Des Moines, where he attended the urban campus of Des Moines Area Community College.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do," Touzani says. "I was working more than full-time, 50 hours a week, because I was on my own and paying my own rent and my own tuition. It was tough, which is probably what led to my joining the Army. I needed to be somewhere where I could focus on something. I needed a little more structure. The Army gave me that."
One of the lucky ones
Touzani joined the Army on Jan. 3, 2006, as a private first class. He attended Airborne School, took a special operations preparatory course, and was assigned to the Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga.
His first deployment to Iraq lasted 14 months—he left Oct. 26, 2007 and returned Dec. 10, 2008. During that time, his patrol base was in Jurf al-Sakhr, Iraq, a rural town on the west coast of the Euphrates about 40 miles southwest of Baghdad and the site of some of the worst fighting during Iraqi Operation Freedom.
"There were a lot of incidents my first deployment," Touzani says. The most significant one, he says, was a double fratricide—or friendly fire—case, in which a U.S. soldier killed two other U.S. soldiers. Touzani later attended the trial as a witness in the case that became known as U.S. v. Bozicevich.
"We lost other guys, but that one was definitely the toughest for everybody," Touzani says.
Just two weeks after the double fratricide occurred, Touzani was injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on his platoon. He sustained a number of injuries including a partial torn meniscus, bruises on his elbows and both knees, corneal abrasions, minor burns, and emotional trauma. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal and nominated for a Bronze Star Medal.
"I was in a wheelchair for a while and on crutches for a while, but I stayed in Iraq," he says. "I worked in headquarters until I could walk around, wore a knee brace, and I continued mission. We were such a tight-knit group. I wasn't going to leave."
He knows he was one of the lucky ones; several members of his platoon were killed in action or severely injured during the attack that injured him as well as several ensuing ones. He saw comrades and enemies lose limbs and lives. One became a double amputee. A good friend was comatose for two weeks. He witnessed multiple suicides.
Did he ever want to give up?
"No. We were like the Band of Brothers is the easiest way to explain it," Touzani says. "We were very, very close, and a lot of us still are. I had some good buddies, and the Army assigned a lieutenant colonel who was a psychiatrist and who shadowed our platoon and provided care, counseling, and support."
His second deployment lasted 10 months, from July 2010 until April 2011, when he served as a squad leader and staff sergeant. In some ways, the second deployment was harder, he says, because he got married in between his tours, and this time, he was leaving his wife, Mindy, behind.
New mission: 'succeed in school'
Despite the sacrifices, Touzani has no regrets.
"I really do personally believe that we made a difference during both tours," Touzani says. "The children are really the key to the future of any country, and you could see through the interactions with the kids that they didn't hate Americans. They enjoy their freedom. In a war-torn country, to see the hope in the children made it worthwhile.”
It’s that same drive that will likely help Touzani excel at the UI in his support of other veterans. He realizes advancing his education will allow him to continue to use the leadership skills he honed in the military.
The nationally recognized accounting degree in the Tippie College of Business seemed like a good fit, Touzani says. Plus, he adds, transferring his credits to the UI was easy thanks to the help of UI support staff.
“I’ve always loved the Hawkeyes, and this is such a beautiful campus with an amazingly well networked community for helping veterans. I tell all of my friends that if they’re thinking about getting out of the military, think about Iowa,” Touzani says.
In the meantime, he promises that veterans here will have a voice.
"They need people to help them with the little things so they can focus on their new mission, which is succeed at school," he says.
For more information about UIVA meeting times and upcoming events, contact Touzani at 319-335-3152, 319-400-9750, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact: Greg Touzani, UI Veterans Association, 319-384-0077