Marine delays graduation to serve

Chelsie Hanstad

Technically, University student Jake Aldean did not have to go back. Not yet, anyway. But he did.

As a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, Aldean could have waited until he graduated in May to return to active duty.

But when his military police company was called up a week before his brother’s wedding, Aldean decided he should go, too.

“He felt if they were going, he had to go with them,” Aldean’s father Charles said. “Along with being scared, I was extremely proud of him for wanting to take care of all the kids he was in charge of.”

Aldean is one of four University students the Daily interviewed who recently returned to the Twin Cities after serving in the military in Iraq. Their stories will be featured through Thursday.

Military police companies, like Aldean’s, control prisoners of war, train local police forces, direct traffic, escort convoys and take on security missions.

“We’ve got a lot of sharp kids: guys going to college, successful businesspeople – a good cross-section,” Aldean said of the Marines in his company.

When he first arrived in the Middle East, he went to Kuwait. There, before the war, he trained, doing “a lot of physical fitness stuff,” he said.

Then he did customs work, checking other Marines leaving Iraq to ensure they did not try to transport forbidden items such as agricultural products and weapons.

“There’s always a moron who will try to bring back a hand grenade,” he said.

Regulations on items taken out of Iraq are tight. People could not even remove items such as rocks and dirt.

“We didn’t go there to loot their country,” Aldean said.

His company also spent 10 or 11 days repairing a bridge over the Diyala River, east of Baghdad, where he interacted with the locals each day.

Aldean knew how to say a few Arabic words – “no” and “Don’t do that” – and some of the Iraqis spoke English, but he communicated with people primarily through hand signals. And this was not always pleasant, he said.

People became frustrated when bridge repairs were slow and people could not cross. Medical vehicles were allowed across the bridge, so people began to pay fares for ambulances to take them across.

Aldean said he was frustrated with some aspects of the Iraqi culture.

“You can’t judge a culture on limited experience, but the way they treat their women is totally different,” he said. “They don’t treat (them) very well, but I think that’s going to change.”

When he saw Iraqi families walking together, the fathers would always lead the group, followed by the sons and then the women, who carried all the family’s belongings, “usually on their heads,” he said.

“Towards the end (of the war), you’d see the guys sitting on the street corner with nothing to do, and the women would be doing all the work,” Aldean said.

After his time in Iraq, his company returned to Kuwait before heading home.

Aldean talked to people at home one or two times before the war, but communication became easier as time went by.

“He’s not much of a letter writer, so we would wait for him to call,” Aldean’s mother Lori Aldean said.

The first time he called, he asked his mother what people in the United States were saying about the war.

“He wanted to know if it was like Vietnam,” she said. Aldean’s father served in Vietnam as an Air Force pararescueman recovering downed pilots and aircrews.

“But even the people who are not for the war seem to want to make sure people know it’s nothing against the soldiers and the Marines,” Lori said.

Though there were no embedded reporters in his company, his family watched for him in the media.

“At one point, my dad saw a picture in the Times and thought it was me. He told everyone it was me. I think he still tells everyone it was me,” Aldean said.

Charles Aldean found it hard to read the papers.

“Just like everybody else in that boat, we probably didn’t hear from him for about six weeks from the time he got over there. You had no way of knowing for sure,” he said.

At first, his mother was hooked on the news.

“It got to the point where I would be at work and would click on the Fox News page to see if there were updates, and if there was a casualty I’d call my husband and ask if he knew anything,” she said. “But eventually we started watching ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette,’ those stupid shows Ö because it was a departure from everything.”

Aldean’s family gathered at the Fort Snelling Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center with families of other Marines in September to welcome him home.

“It’s fun to come back, but it’s surreal,” Aldean said. “Right when you step off the boat, it seems like a dream, and it’s hard to believe you were gone for eight months.”

Aldean, a political science student, wants to become an officer and make the Marine Corps his career after he graduates, Charles said. Aldean’s company might be headed back to the Middle East – this time for a year.

“Wars aren’t great, but it’s not a perfect world we live in,” Aldean said. “At this point in time, I’m doing my part.”