Montgomery College student Mohammed “Mo” Vafai says he decided to join the military when he was six.
“I was always fascinated by it. Even going to the library with my mom, I would run over to the military section and just look at all the books, read up on it, look at the pictures. It called to me.”
Now 28 years old, Vafai is once again in the library as he studies international relations on the Rockville Campus. And his classmates know he has some real world experience to supplement the books they read. Vafai joined the U.S. Army at 22 years old. He served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is currently a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.
“It really tests your character,” he said about his military experience. “It was about being in the rough environment and actually testing myself to see if I had what it takes and to see if I could maintain my morality in that environment.”
In Afghanistan, the environment was indeed challenging. During the winter months, Vafai, an infantryman, and his team patrolled in freezing temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero. Sometimes, his gear weighed 100 pounds. Other times, soldiers got only one meal a day. During one of his tours of duty, access to showers was limited, and Vafai went months without one.
And of course there was the actual fighting. During his first tour, Vafai injured his lower back when a bomb went off about 40 meters ahead of him. Today, he suffers from chronic pain and has some limitations in mobility. To combat the pain, Vafai goes to the gym religiously, which he says prevents it from getting worse. He is also diligent about maintaining good posture.
Vafai says one other challenge was being an American named Mohammed—the Taliban fighters found that especially offensive, and even some of his fellow soldiers were apprehensive until they got to know him better.
“I told all my soldiers—the hardest experience you go through in life gives you best opportunity to gain wisdom, but it is on you to use that opportunity. Once you have that wisdom, it not only betters yourself, but it can better the people around us. Especially veterans like me who have seen so much at a young age…we have so much we can offer to our generation.”
Back in the United States, Vafai has a new and different set of challenges, including balancing work, school, and being a single parent. The military is highly structured, Vafai says, and learning to “set your own pace” can make the transition from solider to student difficult.
To help ease the way, Vafai is active with the College’s award-winning Combat2College program. He especially appreciates the veterans’ lounge on the Rockville Campus. “The other veterans understand, they are like-minded—it’s a big support group, a way for veterans to look out for each other. If you are having a hard time, someone will help you,” Vafai says.
The College is also the first in the nation to support a veteran’s lounge just for women.
And Vafai says the value of education is worth it. “I really want my degree. I already have combat experience, so I can bring that real-life experience and combine it with my school experiences, making me a more well-rounded person.”
Of course, he also wants to set a strong example for his son. “I want him to see through me that he can attain whatever goals he sets for himself through great education and dedication.”