He chats via computer with a professor at Miami Dade College and tells fellow students in an online posting, “Well, I am not your typical guy or your typical Latino” before describing the gunshot in the head he survived and the inspiration he finds when he “breathes'' Pachelbel’s Canon.
Ramos, 24, an Army specialist who is pursuing an engineering degree online, connects the chaos of a combat zone in Iraq with the normalcy of hometown life in ways not possible for soldiers even 16 years ago, during the first Gulf War. Online education may be the most striking example; hundreds of colleges aggressively market to an audience of soldiers who can sign up for classes instantly.
That led to a doubling in the amount the U.S. military spent on tuition reimbursement between 2002 and 2006, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, D.C. Schools like Nova Southeastern University in Davie, with large online programs, have been particularly active in recruiting military members, with dozens of deployed soldiers taking classes in a given semester.
But pursuing a degree is only part of Ramos' motivation. The classes he's taking help ``to combat the loneliness, boredom and desperation that comes with life in this country,'' he wrote in an e-mail interview.
``I love these classes because it makes me think, it helps me escape the detrimental effects of this world and makes me feel as if I belong.''
Ramos once toured half the bases in Iraq to pick up a textbook—when a package mailed by his mother was accidentally delivered to his old base and he hitched a ride on a helicopter that changed schedules. He divides his free time between the gym and the computer screen. He chats with friends online for hours, with Web cameras in real time. He checks his stocks, uses the phone and makes friends through MySpace. He buys books through Amazon or downloads music on iTunes.
``We sit and debate religion and politics and whatever, for no apparent reason,'' said Valerie Goodfellow, 27, a friend from Miami who Ramos met through MySpace. They chat for two hours a day via instant message, but have never met in person. ``We talk about how excited he gets when ice cream shows up. Ice cream is a hot commodity.''
Some chats are interrupted. ``He'll be like, 'I'll be right back . . . shots are being fired on the other side of the river.'''
Goodfellow said she finds Ramos more mature and thoughtful than most men his age who seem like they would rather party than debate serious issues and check their Wells Fargo stock. There's a difference, of course, between Ramos and civilian men his age. Ramos wears a metal band on his right wrist to remember an officer who died in a roadside bombing.
Ramos, a stocky guy with bushy eyebrows, works communications on a base near the front lines on the outskirts of Tikrit. He hopes to earn an associate degree next year and to continue, when his third and final tour ends in November, studying for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering.
Ramos, the son of a Cuban exile and a Mexican immigrant, was raised in Liberty City. He enlisted in 2001, a month before Sept. 11, 2001. He didn't have money for college and couldn't get a decent job. His best friend had been accepted as a military helicopter mechanic, and the Army seemed more appealing than feeling left behind by friends who went to college.
In November of 2007, Ramos expects to return to North Carolina and begin his transition to civilian life. He wants to travel to Hawaii, sign up for classes and, for the first time, take advantage of some other aspects of campus life.
``As soon as I have my life in order . . . I will start looking for a girlfriend,'' he said. ``I am more than overdue for one.''