Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock always wears an "A" pin on his lapel. The one currently adorning his suit jacket traveled to Iraq and back, with the mission of keeping a young man reminded of home and his dreams.
"The pin showed me that Appalachian is what I'd return home to. I wanted to come back and earn my degree," said Giovanni Modica, a junior management major from Jacksonville, N.C., who is a member of the 30th Brigade of the North Carolina Army National Guard.
He left what he calls "the comforts of a typical college kid" when his unit deployed in December 2008. He missed three semesters to go on a stabilization and humanitarian mission in urban Baghdad, where he was an E4 specialist assigned to security detail for a U.S. team mentoring Iraqi forces.
Before he deployed, Modica attended a scholarship dinner at the chancellor's residence. "Dr. Peacock came up to me and said, 'I know you're about to leave us at Appalachian and I know you're going to be really far way, but I'd like you to take this 'A' pin with you so you will have a piece of Boone and the Appalachian Family with you at all times.' I kept it with me during the whole deployment. It went on my assault backpack. It was something I could look at and be like, I know what I'm going home to—I'm going back to school. I'm going back to Appalachian."
Modica, who hopes to start his own business someday, was one of 11 students who deployed that year. He applauds Appalachian students and administrators for the care packages and letters they sent while his group was away.
"It was really great seeing the support from the university, knowing that I didn't get yanked out of school and completely forgotten," he said. "This university really does care about each individual student. They genuinely take an interest in each student's education and life."
As a machine gunner, his job in Iraq was always risky. "There's a constant anxiety. I never knew if the next time I went out if it would be my last mission," Modica said. His vehicle did get hit twice by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs—both times, he just happened to have had the day off. But there were calmer days, too. His unit helped remodel a school, provide winter clothes for residents of poor neighborhoods, and give mini-grants to Iraqi small businesses.
When he came back to campus, Modica decided to return the pin to Chancellor Peacock. "He gave it to me so I wouldn't miss Boone, but now I was back in Boone. I thought he'd really enjoy having it, and it was a way to say thank you to him for his support and the school's support during the deployment."
At a university luncheon, Modica approached the chancellor and said to him, "I have the pin you gave me before I left for Iraq. Now that I'm home, I'd like for you to have it. He was like, 'Wow, this is really neat.' He took his pin off, I pinned mine on him, and he gave his to me. Now I wear his. It was a pretty unique moment."
This Veterans Day, Modica hopes Americans appreciate what soldiers do for their country. "Less than 1 percent ever serve, and that 1 percent supports the other 99 in terms of getting the stability to live in the country we have." He also wants people to have a good time. "I don't want them to be somber. I want them to enjoy the day and fully take advantage of the opportunities they have, because that's the whole reason we fight for things—to protect America so people can enjoy their life."
G.I. Jobs' 2011 Guide to Military Friendly Schools includes Appalachian in the top 15 percent of the nation's colleges, universities and trade schools that are doing the most to embrace America's military members and veterans as students. The guide was published in September.
This is the second year in a row Appalachian has made the list. Criteria include efforts to recruit and retain military and veteran students, results in recruiting military and veteran students and academic accreditations. More than 250 students applied for VA education benefits for Appalachian's 2010 fall semester.