Students postpone schooling for military duty
March 9, 2007
This story earned honorable mention in feature writing in the 2007 Collegiate Better Newspaper Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. Read more
At first glance, UW-River Falls may appear to be a quiet college community, seemingly detached from many of the global issues reported in the news, such as the war in Iraq.
In actuality UWRF is no stranger to the war, and some students are getting ready to fulfill their duties as members of the U.S. armed forces, while others have already stared war in the face.
Off to war
Chris Aeschliman, a 19-year-old freshman and member of the National Guard, is one student preparing to make his first appearance at a unknown destination overseas. Aeschliman said that currently there are only rumors circulating about where his unit will end up, but he expects it will be somewhere in Iraq.
“It’s never set in stone until we actually get where we’re going,” he said. “That’s the way the military is.”
Aeschliman enlisted in the National Guard on Nov. 5, 2004. He is part of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry out of Menomonie, Wis. Aeschliman will attend basic training in June at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and in August he is expected to have boots on ground, meaning he will be deployed and on the ground by then. His mother and father both serve in the National Guard. He said his father has already been to Iraq and has agood understanding of what it is like there.
Aeschliman said he thought it would be a good idea to enlist in the National Guard because of his parents’ involvement and the economic benefits that will help him pay for college. Students in the U.S. armed forces receive a variety of benefits to help pay for school, including the Montgomery GI Bill, the Armed Forces Tuition Assistance Program and the Student Loan Repayment Program. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the GI Bill is designed to provide eligible veterans
with up to 36 months of benefits for college, job training, entrepreneurship training and other forms of education. For veterans to be eligible, they must meet certain requirements as outlined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to military.com, the tuition assistance program is “a benefit paid to eligible members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Congress has given each service the ability to pay up to 100 percent for the tuition expenses of its members.” As with the GI Bill, the tuition assistance program has certain eligibility requirements and an application process.
The loan repayment program is similar to the tuition assistance program, but the army will pay up to $65,000 of a soldier’s qualifying student loans. Aeschliman said he expected and was hoping to go to war when he signed up. The 105th Cavalry of Wausau, Wis., didn’t have enough men so he volunteered in an effort to be deployed sooner.
“I just want to see the Middle East,” he said.
Aeschliman said he is aware of the dangers he will face if he ends up in Iraq.
“You’re going into a combat zone,” he said. “Even though it’s different fighting than 50 years ago, it’s still a combat zone. You’re going to be shot at and you’re going to have to return fire.”
Aeschliman said he has a life insurance plan which would provide his family with $400,000 if the worst were to occur.
He said he knows his family, especially his mother, is concerned. Statistics warrant their concerns, as the possibility of injury or death is evident in any war.
According to the Iraq Coalition Casualties Web site, 23,417 U.S. military personnel have been wounded as of Feb. 3, and 3,149 have died as of Feb. 21.
Fortunately for two UWRF students, they are not included in those statistics. David Till, 30, and Greg Anderson, 23, both veterans of the war in Iraq, carry with them a myriad of experiences that have changed their lives.
Till, a UWRF student and employee of Veterans Services, has been in the National Guard for 13 years. He is a staff sergeant in Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Mounted Infantry out of River Falls.
Till enlisted on Aug. 12, 1994. He said at the time he didn’t think he would go to war but he wanted a challenge. Like Aeschliman, Till said he knew the education benefits were plentiful.
He said the mission of the National Guard is to be the state quick reaction force for any emergency that would merit their involvement, and to train for wartime.
His training was about to pay off when, in November 2004, he was deployed to Samarra, Iraq, a town between Tikrit and Baghdad. Just as Aeschliman will soon experience, Till was deployed with a company of which he is not a member: Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry out of Arcadia, Wis. Till returned to the United States in November 2005, but for 12 months he said he called Samarra his home. Samarra is a place where on Feb. 22, there was a major bombing of a Shiite mosque, kicking off a war between the Sunnis and the Shiites.
Till said that particular mosque was where poor Muslims went if they couldn’t afford to go to Mecca. While in Samarra, Till said he worked with the people of Iraq.
“We got to see the difference of who you’re fighting against and who you’re fighting for,” he said.
Till said he has no doubt that the United States went to war to help the Iraqi people, but others are skeptical. “I don’t understand why we’re there in the first place,” freshman Nick Kantola said. “They couldn’t find chemical or biological weapons.” Till disagrees.
“Everyone gets caught up in the whole [weapons of mass destruction] thing, but the truth of the matter is we got Saddam Hussein out of power,” Till said. “He’s a bad, bad man.” Kantola said he does support the troops, regardless.
“If they want to be there, I’ll support them being there,” he said.
Till said he had many duties in Iraq. When he got to Samarra, there were only 20 Iraqi police officers, untrained. By the time he left the town, there were 800 trained officers.
He said he also did small things that made a big difference to the Iraqi citizens. He helped a family of eight get an air conditioner. He helped schools get simple things such as chairs and pencils. He gave children candy. He gave them things that he said many people take for granted.
“If you’ve never left the United States, you can’t make a justification of what [Iraq] is,” Till said. “These people don’t even have a bank in Iraq.”
Till is also well aware of the darker side of war, and he said he believes everyone is affected differently by the experience.
Some people go to war and never hear a gunshot, while others are forced to feel the shadow of violence war can cast.
“When you peel dead human out of your boot, or when you see maimed bodies all over the place, that’s a horrible thing to see,” Till said.
Anderson, a longtime resident of River Falls and a junior in broad business marketing at UWRF, enlisted in the National Guard in March 2003. He became part of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry out of New Richmond, Wis.
“I felt obligated to do some sort of service for the country,” Anderson said.
He also said he was bored with the normal college routine, and was curious about going to war.
Memories of war
In June 2003 he attended basic training for 16 weeks at Fort Benning, Ga. It was there he found out that his curiosity was to become a reality. He said the captain of his training company called him into his office and told him to “get ready because you’re going to the sandbox.”
At that moment, Anderson said he felt “giddy and shocked,” and he wondered how he was going to tell his mother and family.
Bravo Company had already been training to go to Iraq at Camp Shelby, Miss. Anderson said he had to complete basic training at Fort Benning before he could join them. After finishing basic training he joined his company at Camp Shelby, where he completed additional training, focused more on actual wartime situations. On Nov. 21, 2004, Anderson flew out of Mississippi headed for Kuwait, where he and his company would pre-pare to enter Iraq. “[Going to Iraq] was always in the back of my mind,” Anderson said.
Anderson, along with the rest of Bravo Company got acclimated to the weather in Kuwait for a short time, and soon began their journey into Iraq. Some flew and some drove across the desert in a line of armored military vehicles known as a convoy. Anderson was part of the convoy, which took four hours. The company’s destination was Forward Operating Base (FOB) Cobra, 80 miles east of Baghdad.
The mission of Anderson’s company had several components. They conducted routine foot patrols. They had observation points where they would sit in a “hot area” to make sure nobody was placing roadside bombs. They worked with city officials to build structure. They trained the Iraqi Army, and like Till, the police force. They participated in raids where they would burst into homes with guns at the ready, usually unannounced and at night, to look for any person or material that may have posed a threat.
“I was thinking a hundred different things in my head,” Anderson said.
He said they found rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, bombs and bomb materials. Anderson said he feels that when a person is faced with life-threatening situations, mental preparedness is key.
Raids and patrols required a lot of driving outside of FOB Cobra, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are common along roads in Iraq.
According to Globalsecurity.org, “An IED can be almost anything with any type of material and initiator. It is a ‘homemade’ device that is designed to cause death or injury by using explosives alone or in combination with toxic chemicals, biological toxins or radiological material.”
Anderson’s position was the gunner for a humvee, an armored all terrain vehicle with a hole in the top known as a gunner hatch and a mounted machine gun. Anderson said he would sit in what he called a “swing seat,” fully exposed to potential dangers such as gunfire or IEDs. The driver would often yell at him to stay out of the hatch. Anderson said he knew the dangers of exposure.
“If we get hit by a roadside bomb, I don’t want to feel it,” he said.
Brush with death
One day while going out on a routine mission to check on a village, Anderson’s fate was tested. His convoy approached a bend no more than a mile from FOB Cobra. Someone aboard the first vehicle in the line saw a big potato sack, which Anderson said they thought was trash. Anderson’s vehicle was no more than five meters from the potato sack when it exploded at a capacity that could be seen, heard and felt from FOB Cobra. The IED shattered the windshield and blew out a tire of his humvee. He said he quickly manned his gun, but could find no target.
“People were running everywhere,” he said.
It was then he said he realized the shrapnel from the bomb had shredded the entire area around the gunner hatch, where he had been standing only seconds before.
“It really opened my eyes at, wow, I almost got murdered by someone,” Anderson said.
On Oct. 25, 2005, after 11 months in Iraq, Anderson returned to River Falls, where he continues his education at UWRF.
Aeschliman prepares to depart, while Till and Anderson look back on their experiences in Iraq with an admitted sense of accomplishment and appreciation for life.
During his deployment in Iraq, Anderson took leave in Ireland for a short time with images of the desert and the war fresh in his mind. He said when he arrived, the aroma of green grass made him truly happy. He ripped a clump out of the ground and smelled it, feeling refreshed.