Faculty and students regularly seek ways to connect what they are learning in the classroom to real-world issues and experiences. For Leo Diaz, ’17, who spent several years in the workforce and the military before attending college, those connections hit very close to home in an unlikely way.
After high school, Diaz spent four years working full time in loss prevention while serving as a Marine Reservist, where he trained one weekend per month and two weeks during the summer. “I was a crewman on an armored amphibious vehicle, which handles troop transport, so I learned how to drive the vehicle safely, and how to shoot the guns it contained,” he said.
He said he learned the most from his military service by talking to the seasoned military veterans in his unit who had experienced deployments, and seeing how those experiences affected them. “By the time I went in, my unit had already been deployed twice to Iraq, once in the initial invasion, and again during the period where everything was roadside bombs,” he said. “It was a huge thing for them to deal with because they are tasked with troop transport.”
At the same time, Diaz still had his eye on going to college. “I knew I needed to get out of the Marines and focus on school because that was what was going to get me a career,” he said. After completing his service, he returned home to Richmond and went to John Tyler Community College with the express purpose of transferring to the University of Richmond to study medieval history, a passion he’d had since high school. “I knew there were great history professors here, particularly Dr. [Joanna] Drell, who focuses on the medieval period; Richmond was where I wanted to go,” he said.
Once he delved into studying the medieval period, Diaz began to think about the correlations between present-day military service, and the experience of going on a Crusade. “In Dr. Drell’s class on the Crusades, we read a poem written from the perspective of a woman seeing her husband go on a Crusade and blaming everyone for taking her husband away from her, which struck a chord with me as that’s an experience that many military families have now,” he said.
Diaz’s thoughts then turned to the emotional and psychological wounds that present-day soldiers experience, in the form of PTSD, and he was curious about what information existed about the impact of combat on medieval warriors. With Drell as his mentor and the support of a UR Summer Fellowship, he undertook the topic as a research project.
“I used medieval chronicles to get a good understanding of the history, but chroniclers weren’t concerned with the common soldier or the psychological toll of battle. They were writing with the goal of providing instruction to future generations on the proper way to live and rule,” Diaz said.
His main source material ended up being medieval literature, which, while not literal, delved more into the emotional aspects of war he was hoping to learn more about. “In the epic poem The Song of Roland, you see Charlemagne, after his army that was ahead of him had been defeated, ambushed, and killed,” Diaz said. “He arrives at the battlefield, sees his men dying, and falls to his knees, expressing his grief at having survived while his men died; you don’t even need to be a veteran to know that feeling of survivor’s guilt.”
Diaz continued his research this fall as a member of the Undergraduate Humanities Fellows Program, and receiving feedback from other members of the class has helped his project grow stronger. “The experience of having other people read what I’m writing, and me reading other people’s writing has helped the whole group grow together,” he said.
While there were times when the research hit a little close to home for Diaz, as he reflected on his military service and the members of his unit, he managed to keep his work in perspective. “When it starts to affect me internally, I’m still able to enjoy it because I think there’s something comforting about seeing how there are some fundamental things about humanity that don’t really change,” he said.