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From Baghdad to South Mountain

Janelle Pham, a graduate student in sociology and anthropology, is a member of the U.S. Army’s 744th Military Police Battalion in Bethlehem.

While many of Lehigh’s first-year graduate students make the transition from undergraduate to graduate life, Janelle Pham is accomplishing the passage from military to civilian life. Walking through Lehigh’s leafy Asa Packer campus is a welcome change for Pham, who spent the past year working within the confines of an Iraqi internment camp in Baghdad.

Pham is a graduate student in the department of sociology and anthropology. But while her fellow students spend weekends relaxing and studying, Pham is fulfilling the remainder of an eight-year commitment to the U.S. Army Reserve.

Pham enlisted in the Army in February 2006 while she was an undergraduate student at Moravian College. She completed the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in history the following December, and less than a month later was scheduled to deploy.

"It seemed natural for me to end up in military service," says Pham. "Too often we don’t think about the awesome freedoms we have and that they don’t come for free. Someone’s got to do it and I’m happy to do so."

After receiving her deployment call, Pham spent four months at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where the Army turned her from a college student into a military police officer. Assigned to work as a guard in the Iraqi internment camps, Pham had to understand the physical and often-times psychological pressures that awaited her in Iraq.

Amazing strides

First, Pham’s tiny 5-foot, 130-pound frame was weighted down with 75 to 80 pounds of body armor, ammunition, fire arms and first aid equipment. The weight alone knocked an inch off her height by the time she returned. During her training she learned the effects of pepper spray first-hand when she was sprayed in the face prior to running an obstacle course. While the tactic sounds harsh, it prepared her to understand the use of non-lethal weapons.

"As a female, you pretty much have to lose that female side of you. But in terms of gender, it’s amazing the strides we’ve made in terms of equality," says Pham.

Once Pham and her unit arrived in Iraq, she was assigned to a special housing unit within the camp. As an MP, Pham guarded at-risk prisoners with behavioral or disciplinary problems, or those who had been placed on suicide watch. Prior to her deployment, Pham had served at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, to grasp the rigors of prison life. Yet, that experience never quite prepared her for the challenge that awaited her.

"The first time I walked into the special housing unit, it was only about three weeks after we arrived in Iraq. I was scared and totally frightened," says Pham. "You quickly learn that you need to appear mean and strong. Our motto while we were there was ‘care, custody and control, with dignity and respect.’"

Since returning to Bethlehem, Pham has had to adjust her routine. While in Iraq, she worked 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. Most of her time outside work was spent watching movies and working out at the gym. Easy access to computers and Internet service allowed her to keep in touch daily with family and friends at home.

Gearing up for the 4 Deserts

Today, Pham, a member of the 744th Military Police Battalion of Bethlehem, spends her weekdays pursuing her master’s degree and one weekend a month continuing her military training. She hopes to further study in the areas of human sexuality and social stratification.

Recently, Pham spoke about her experiences with the Army Reserve and in Iraq at an event at the Packer House that was sponsored by the Graduate Student Life Office and the Global Union.

"Janelle brings a unique set of experiences to the table," says Heather Johnson, director of graduate studies in the department of sociology and anthropology. "Her professional and career experience—and her life experience—with the Army, and in Iraq, make a powerful impact on her contribution to our program and to her own education.

"She brings a fresh and important perspective to our class conversations, our graduate program, our department, and to Lehigh as a whole. I am especially pleased that we were able to award her a teaching assistantship; this gives Janelle a chance to make an even more profound impact on the Lehigh community by working directly with undergraduate students."

If school and military service weren’t enough, Pham is also training for a grueling race through the Atacama Crossing in Chile as part of the 4 Deserts, a series of seven-day, 250-kilometer footraces across the world’s largest and most forbidding deserts. Pham will run the endurance event to raise money for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a non-partisan, non-profit, legal services, watchdog and policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by "Don’t Ask, Don't Tell."

"Grad school," she says, "is painless now."

 

Story by Tricia Long

Posted on Tuesday, October 06, 2009

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