Oregon, Mo., native Christopher Scroggins was one of more than 700 Northwest Missouri State University students to receive a diploma last weekend, but that's hardly his only distinction.
A veteran of the Iraq War, Scroggins, whose degree is in comprehensive crisis response, also earned a Purple Heart after surviving several improvised explosive device attacks.
Scroggins served two tours of duty as a tow gunner with the U.S. Marines' First Division between 2006 and 2009. While overseas, he was stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, and also at a base near the Syrian border.
During his time in combat, Scroggins had four close calls with IEDs. The first one came when his Humvee triggered an underground bomb that sent shrapnel tearing through the vehicle’s armor plate.
Two similar incidents later, he was wounded when a fourth bomb exploded, once again while he was riding in a Humvee.
"Someone was telling a joke, and I turned around to say something, and the next thing I remember was waking up from it. My door was blown open and I looked out, and the book I was reading was all over the road and the desert.
"My first reaction was, I grabbed the radio and said, 'Everybody’s okay. We’re okay.' I put the radio down and was like, 'I've got to get my book.'"
Only Scroggins was not OK. He spent three weeks in the hospital before finishing his Marine Corps hitch in California in July 2009. He suffered a concussion, brain trauma and damage to his right ear drum that has resulted in a 20 percent loss in hearing.
Less than a month later, he once again began taking classes at Northwest.
The transition, which he admits was a rocky one, inspired Scroggins to help found the Northwest Student Veterans Association in fall 2011.
"It was really weird for me going from being physically fit every day and training all the time to not being structured and having to do everything on my own," Scroggins said. "Just being around regular people again was really difficult.
"I personally had a really hard time. It's difficult to just switch from a military mindset to being a civilian and a student. It was weird to hear people say they had a rough day. I'm thinking 'oh did somebody you know die?' or 'was someone shooting at you?'"
Scroggins started the campus vets organization with his friend and fellow Iraq War vet Cody Alexander. The idea was to give student veterans a network of people to whom they could relate.
"It's therapeutic to be able to tell stories," Scroggins said. "You have to be able to talk to your family and friends too, be up front and honest."
Page 2 of 2 - Scroggins strongly suggests that all soldiers returning to civilian life join some kind of veterans group.
He said his own journey taught him that sharing his experiences with others sharpened his sense of purpose and motivated him to complete Northwest's comprehensive crisis response program, a natural fit given his military background.
"In a crisis, you have your incident commander and the officers beneath them," Scroggins said. "It's similar to the command structure that’s set up for a battalion-level unit.
"When I was enlisted, I never understood how the whole system worked," he added. "Then once I started learning about it here, it started coming together. I could relate to it, and I could draw on some of my past experiences too."
Scroggins soon began trading war stories with Mark Corson, a Northwest professor and Army Reserve brigadier general who teaches some of the crisis response courses.
The two became even better acquainted during Atlantic Hope, a crisis response field exercise that took place in Fort Pierce, Fla.
Scroggins and Corson are now hoping to bring a similar exercise to Mozingo Lake.
Scroggins said experiences like Atlantic Hope have strengthened his desire to help people in disaster zones. His current plans involve volunteering with Team Rubicon, a non-profit disaster relief organization recommended to him by Corson.
"They take civilians but it's more of a transitional program for recent veterans who are kind of in 'loss of mission,' Scroggins said. "(Team Rubicon) gives that mission back to them a little and also helps them step down into civilian life. They’re out doing good things, and it’s good for their state of mind."