Moundsville, W. Va. • The scene was all play-acting. But something about hearing the whap-whap-whap of the rescue helicopter and seeing boots on the ground hustling a "wounded" comrade aboard set Jen Carver on edge.
Surrounded by chattering spectators sitting in the prison yard, the Iraq war veteran found herself inexplicably irritated by their joviality.
"That was a tough moment. Everything else just goes away and you see the helicopter," Carver recalls, six weeks after she and fellow Weber State University students took part in mock prison riots, staged as training for Corrections officers.
"It was fake but it brought back some very real situations," Carver says. "It was not good."
Such experiences do not happen often for Carver, 28, who finished her Army enlistment in 2006 after two tours in Iraq, working with the Signal Corps in communications.
She refers to her occasional bouts of anxiety as post-military syndrome rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.
But they give her a glimpse of the challenges some other student veterans face every day at WSU in Ogden, where she works in the Veterans Affairs Office and also represents the university's 800 veterans in the Student Senate.
Carver has her own frustrations in academia: She feels more patronized as a student than she did as a woman in the military.
Knockdown vs. nurture • For years after meeting her first cop as a child in California a then-rookie who was kind to her and her sisters as they suffered from an abusive mother Carver saw police work as a possible career path.
In recent years, though, she took stock of her war injuries migraines from a traumatic brain injury suffered in a fall and a back wrenched several times, including in a Humvee accident and decided she's not meant to be a cop.
"I wouldn't be any use after a while," she says.
Instead, Carver hopes to find a career at the nexus of criminal justice and social work, possibly helping young people suffering from sexual identity discrimination; when she graduates next spring, she'll have degrees in both. She also plans to go for master's and doctorate degrees.
Her proclivity for nurturing rather than cracking heads is on display in May, as students from WSU and other colleges play roles in the West Virginia Mock Prison Riot. Held at a former maximum security prison, the three-day exercise trains jail and prison special operations teams from the U.S. and other nations.
Officers shoot pepper balls filled with baby powder rather than pepper. Most of her classmates jump into scenario after scenario.
But Carver backs out after the first one, saying she had too many important meetings to return to Ogden with injuries. "I think more about the future than most people," she says.
Instead, she goes for doughnuts to give her bruised and battered classmates a sugar lift. It is the third day before she plays a role in a riot again.
'What's right is right' • When WSU student Shalie Barber is shot repeatedly in her heel, numbing her foot, Carver hoists Barber onto her back and carries her around the prison for much of the morning.
The petite Barber, a WSU cheerleader, weighs 98 pounds, and Carver carried at least that much as a soldier, even though she weighs less than 130 pounds herself.
They make an interesting pair, since they clashed overlunch the day before, arguing about candor in politics.
"She's really opinionated," says Barber, a political science major graduating this summer. "Her and I are always going to butt heads."
Nonetheless, Carver says her mothering instincts kicked in.
"I'm one of those people, what's right is right. And just leaving her to fend for herself is not right," says Carver. "I was perfectly capable of carrying her, so I did."
Often blunt to the point of abrasive, Carver argued with another social work major in Bruce Bayley's Introduction to Corrections class last spring, the professor says. "It was so much fun to get them wound up and going at it," he says.
Yet Bayley agrees with one of her fellow students on the trip, who gave Carver the nickname Pepperball.
Carver, he says, is "hard on the outside and baby powder on the inside."
'Go ask a damn veteran!' • Sharing her 4-year-old son, T.J., with her ex-husband, a soldier who returned to his hometown of Ogden in May after finishing his service, is going better than she expected. She even passed her ex's résumé on to a director she knows at Hill Air Force Base.
"T.J.'s attitude is getting so much better because he knows John is not leaving," she says. "He's doing great."
But the summer has been hectic and it's taking a toll on Carver.
She's carrying 21 credits and planning a wedding on Aug. 18, the day after summer session ends.
She is weary and irritable, perturbed that her bid for a veterans resource center at WSU has so far been rebuffed.
"All these departments say they're doing great and they are not," says Carver. "Go ask a damn veteran! Why lie about it? We're not doing better."
She's also angry over what she sees as a prejudice: People don't listen because she's a student and an attractive woman to boot.
"I have never been so discriminated against until I became a student," says Carver. "People literally do not take me seriously."
She adds: "It's, 'Oh you're just a student.' Well, this just-a-student has worked for generals in the United States Army… For someone who is 28, I had a ton of life experience at 21."
'I'm not your mommy' • There is an exception, however: the police academy, where typically a third of the cadets are veterans. She helps them get their GI bill benefits and acts as a mother hen, matching up roommates and reminding the cadets to buy their uniforms and weapons.
At the academy's graduation in May, director Jack Rickards had Carver sit up front and acknowledged her role in the success of nine veteran graduates.
"She has brought an invaluable service to these folks. Some of them wouldn't be here without her help," he says later.
"That last class that just graduated, I think I was more relieved than they were," says Carver, who hopes to train the next set of veteran cadets to be more self-reliant.
Their classes begin in July, and she's getting two texts a day from some of them. "I sent a mass text, [saying] 'This is not going to take place your entire time you're in the academy. I'm not your mommy. You guys are grown-ass men. You can handle it.' "
Her true feelings show in her smile, however.
"They are great guys," says Carver. "They are such good guys."
About American Homecomings
Read the first chapter of The Salt Lake Tribune's series about veteran Jen Carver.
Find more profiles of veterans adjusting to civilian life on AmericanHomecomings.com, a site devoted to covering the re-entry of members of the military to our communities. The collaboration involves Digital First Media newsrooms across the country, including The Tribune.