January 18, 2011 — When U.S. Army Capt. Damon Armeni, 32, first opened his eyes on Aug. 9, 2004, he wondered what on Earth his wife, Kimberly, was doing in Iraq.
In a coma for four days after being eviscerated by an exploding RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade, Armeni was unaware that he had been airlifted from the Middle East to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"She had to tell me I was in the U.S.," Armeni said. After spending a year in and out of the hospital, he made a near-full recovery.
Not surprisingly, Armeni said that the accident changed his life, most notably by reaffirming his commitment to the Army.
"Most of my injuries were abdominal," he explained, adding that the bulk of his physical therapy work was learning how to do everyday things, like sitting up or walking. When Armeni was hit by the RPG, he weighed 210 pounds; in the hospital, he withered away to 145.
While his weight dwindled, Armeni's respect for the U.S. military only increased during his time in the hospital.
"Every day that I spent, no one ever let me forget I was an officer in the United States Army," he said. "They never looked at me as broken."
Born into a military family, Armeni said he wanted to be a soldier from the time he was a small child, and he chose to stay in the military even after his injury. He said the experience has made him a better officer.
"It's given me a different perspective on combat and what it is to fight," he said.
For the next 18 months, Armeni remains on active duty with the Army, but this assignment is quite different from those he faced in Iraq. He and his family have relocated to Palmyra, in nearby Fluvanna County, so that Armeni can commute to U.Va and earn a master's degree in foreign affairs.
"I've wanted to come here since I was an undergrad," said Armeni, who studied political science at the Pacific Lutheran University in Washington, where he was also involved in the ROTC program. U.Va.'s foreign affairs department, in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, is "one of the best programs in the nation," he said, adding that he has wanted to be a Cavalier since visiting here in 1992. He chose to attend Pacific Lutheran as an undergraduate to be closer to his family, but set his sights on U.Va. when the Army selected him for graduate training.
The military pays his tuition, as well as benefits. In return, Armeni agreed to commit three days to the service for each day he is in school.
"At the end of the day, the University has been on top of issues unique to Army officers coming to school here," Armeni said. In particular, he is referring to the issues that arise from having the government pay tuition.
Each year, the Army accepts applications for officers who wish to attend graduate school. From that pool of applicants, a few are selected to earn a post-graduate degree. These officers, like Armeni, are still very much a part of the service – they report to a unit and have periodic performance evaluations.
"Right now my job is to get a master's degree," Armeni explained. "My evaluations are based on my grades."
Armeni said he is "pleased" with his performance so far in school. Of course, transitioning back into a school setting was not easy.
"Switching from the way the military analyzes a problem to the way an academic analyzes the problem was a lot harder than I thought it would be," Armeni said. Writing academic essays was especially challenging, he said, explaining that the style is very different from the reports he writes as an Army officer.
While Armeni is studying at U.Va., his wife is earning her bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in education from Mary Baldwin College. She is undecided as to whether she wants to pursue a career as a teacher or a position in the psychiatric field. The couple's two children, 8-year-old Dalen and 5-year-old Brooke, like their new home in Palmyra.
"My son really enjoys school," Armeni said.
He said that he has greatly benefitted from getting to live off-base and spend his days among men and women from outside of the armed services.
"Being around civilians, I learned a lot more about my country by talking to people from outside of my community," he said, noting that the military can be a particularly like-minded community. "I feel like it's been a broadening experience."
At the same time, Armeni is able to share his own experiences with the military.
"The perception is that the Army doesn't do anything for its wounded veterans," Armeni said. "I don't think anything could be further from the truth."
Sharing his story with others is important to him. On Nov. 12, Armeni spoke at the Second-Year Council's U.Va. Veteran's Appreciation Luncheon. He gave a short speech on his injuries, making note of the Army's interest in both him and his recovery.
"I can't imagine anything more powerful than that," he said. "The Army takes care of its people."
Armeni is on track to graduate next December, when he will return to a more traditional form of service. His experience at U.Va. has so far been a good one, he said, adding that he can see himself returning to Charlottesville sometime in the future.
"I'd like to get my Ph.D., but things being what they are, I don't have time for it now," he said. He hopes to resume his academic career at U.Va. after he retires from the service some years down the road.