TEditor’s note: Since the day four U.S. planes were taken and turned into weapons Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. soldiers have continued to serve abroad, and University students are among those in training or on the battlefields.
Each student-turned-soldier – or vice versa – has a different story that varies as much as his or her experience. Inside today’s Daily is a special report, in which we introduce readers to these students’ lives, experiences and decisions for entering the military.
We have also studied the recruiters who scout for students on campus and the ROTC program, which draws students into military life.
In civilian clothes, they look like many of us. But in some of their minds lie images of war many Americans might never see for themselves.
We hope this project informs and enlightens you about the experiences of some students around us every day.
ucked in the Mesopotamian Marshlands at the mouth of the Euphrates River is the heart of what many consider to be the very cradle of civilization. The Garden of Eden, the dawn of man in splendid innocence, the lush green of paradise and the vibrant red of forbidden fruit.
Within 24 hours of President George W. Bush’s famous “Shock and awe” speech, which launched a military offensive on Iraq on March 19, 2003, U.S. Army Ranger Andy Davis dove through the sky like an archangel, parachuting into northwestern Iraq as one of the first troops on the ground.
For the next day, his six-hour mission was to secure the Hadithah Dam from Iraqi troops believed to be preparing to blow up the dam and flood the Euphrates River basin.
The Iraqi fighters would wash out paradise, the garden, and the paths for coalition forces’ tanks and infantry.
The short mission turned into a firefight against Iraqi troops that lasted from March 31, 2003, to April 11, 2003, and Davis was under heavy fire.
On the seventh day of battle, one of Davis’ soldiers lost his eyes to an artillery round. Concrete shrapnel battered the men as the round shattered in the road 7 feet from them. It nearly took their lives. Later, a medic removed a 2 1/2 inch piece of concrete from the soldier’s frontal lobe.
As the battle raged, a visibly pregnant Iraqi woman approached three of Davis’ close friends, asking for water and help at a nearby roadside checkpoint. The men walked to her and her vehicle. She took one look back at the car and detonated a bomb housed inside. It killed all three.
On April 9, 2003, Davis celebrated his 22nd birthday in paradise under enemy fire – the same day coalition forces took Baghdad, Iraq.
The St. Peter, Minn., native’s two-month tour in Iraq left him unscathed, and he returned to the United States in May 2003.
In August 2004, Davis came to the University and is now studying political science and geography.
“Since I was a little kid I wanted to fly jets,” Davis said. “I wanted to be Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun,’ and then, I decided it would be more fun to jump out of them instead.”
Rangers are the first-in, first-to-leave, short-term, high-risk mavericks of the Army.
In 1999, Davis said, he signed up and began training in Fort Benning, Ga.
When he heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he knew he would be traveling overseas and was ready to defend his country.
“I knew the minute I was told the first plane hit that I was going to be going overseas, and so it was definitely Ö something scary to think about,” he said. “But there was never a doubt, in my training or in my fellow soldiers, that everything was going to work out fine.”
Hurtling through the sky over Taliban-ruled Afghanistan on Oct. 19, 2001, Davis said, he felt the thin, high-altitude air fill his lungs. He was one of the first 30 U.S. troops on the ground.
His unit helped establish and build Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan.
After returning to the United States for training, Davis was deployed back for a second tour in 2002, patrolling the Afghan-Pakistani border. He conducted drug and weapon searches at roadside checkpoints and hunted down terrorist cells.
Davis returned home in September 2002 and spent approximately four months training for another tour, this time in Iraq.
For his work securing the Hadithah Dam, Davis earned the Bronze Star Medal with valor device.
He was baptized in fire in paradise, and he survived. More than 1,500 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, including 27 of Davis’ close friends, he said.
“Luckily for me, and ‘luckily’ is a loose term, most of them happened while I was in battle, so you have a much more pressing thing going on in front of you,” he said. “You’re trying to keep yourself and other people alive.”
Davis said it was tougher when he lost friends after he returned home because he would start to think about how, had he been there, he might have been able to prevent the deaths. His friends gave up their lives for their country, Davis said.
“It’s always hard to swallow when somebody dies, but it’s harder to swallow when you know the guy would do it again if he were still alive,” Davis said.
During his military career, Davis achieved staff sergeant status and received five Army commendations. When he returned from Iraq, he began working a staff position in the technological realm of the Army, trying to digitize and update U.S. soldiers with 21st-century technology, he said.
After working on a project called Land Warrior, which basically turns a soldier into a “walking computer,” he moved back to Minnesota and segued into a position working with Minnesota-based defense contractors.
At the University in August 2004, Davis helped create a nonprofit student organization, Comfort for Courage, which sends amenities to soldiers stationed overseas.
While Davis was working to digitize the U.S. soldier, Jeremiah Peterson was sitting in the turret of a Humvee behind a powerful M40 gun. On a dusty road in southern Baghdad, Peterson and his platoon were on the lookout for anything suspicious, anything that might suggest an attack, he said.
He said he watched a man jump into a suspicious-looking Chevy Suburban and take off down the road. Following behind, Peterson watched the car veer and cruise even faster. Suddenly, he heard the rattling of the chains on the front of his truck.
Then, something fast and fuzzy in the haze of dust below went skipping along beneath the truck. It ricocheted off to the side and behind him, exploding in the dusty wake. It was a rocket-propelled grenade shot from the back of the ratty sport utility vehicle, he said.
Peterson described the feeling of being in combat as one of serene lucidity.
“When it went down, all of a sudden, you had a new clarity and a new priority to know where everybody is around you,” he said. “All you’re doing is staring right where you’re supposed to; you don’t have time to be scared, you put that aside for other things.”
Peterson signed up for the Minnesota National Guard in late 2000, after his friends signed him up for Army recruitment mailing lists while he was absent from school in Brainerd, Minn.
Having lived on his own since he was 16, Peterson was allowed to sign himself out of school. When Army recruiters came to his high school for a presentation, he skipped class, he said. His friends jokingly signed him up for recruitment information.
Once a recruiter called, Peterson liked the idea of earning money, serving his country and going to college, he said.
Despite his dad’s chiding about possibly going to war, Peterson began going to drills at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minn., he said.
In November 2003, he said, he dropped out of his University classes and began training for his tour in Iraq.
In March 2004, Peterson began work at Camp Victory, on the premises of Baghdad International Airport, patrolling the notoriously dangerous Airport Road.
“One of the things you don’t hear in the media is that when we got there, tons of people were dying, but by the time we left, it was a fairly safe road; activity had gone to almost null,” he said.
For the first four months, he helped secure the southern part of the airport, where planes take off and land, Peterson said.
He said that he was probably in more danger than most soldiers and remembers being shot at approximately once a week. Peterson said that while many question the justification for the war, to see the oppression Iraqis lived under during Saddam Hussein’s regime sheds new light on the idea for going to war.
Carrying candy whenever he was out on patrol, Peterson said, attracted his fair share of Iraqi children. He said the Iraqi civilians, for the most part, were welcoming.
“With civilians, the ones who didn’t like you, they would tell you, and you respected that,” he said. “Everybody was really nice, especially on (Airport Road), because they were really sick of people blowing up stuff right by their houses.”
He said taking 18 months off to serve in the Army has slowed his academic career, his dream of attending medical school and his organic chemistry studies.
Because he was a driver in Iraq, Peterson said, he also gets paranoid when he sees boxes on the road. In Iraq, boxes were often used as improvised explosives.
“I don’t have any trauma for it, but I’m still adjusting; you take a whole class on watching your temper and how you can’t order people around now,” he said.
Seeing dead bodies, Peterson said, was not that big of a deal.
“You might see a dead body, but that Ö doesn’t mean you’re out of danger; you still have to clear your sector,” he said. “Everybody still has to be (360- degree) security.
“If I saw a dead guy on University (Avenue), I’d probably freak out, though, and I’d call the cops, and I’d go bananas, and I’d tell everybody. But there, it’s a different mentality.”
While Peterson patrolled Airport Road, Tayo Akanni was on a 36-hour convoy in a Humvee with three soldiers under his command, trying to keep them awake and alert, he said.
While they made the trip from Kuwait to Camp Anaconda, 55 kilometers north of Baghdad, Akanni said, he and his fellow soldiers passed around Gatorade bottles to relieve themselves and stopped once to sleep for six hours.
With the burning Iraqi sun high in the sky, soldiers were prone to pass out, so Akanni had to keep his drinking water and pay attention to anything out of the ordinary, he said.
Akanni, an economics senior, was born in Nigeria but moved to the Twin Cities at age 12 when his dad got a research position at the University.
He said he initially signed up for the National Guard in 1999 because he was planning on attending Arizona State University and needed the financial help. Even though that didn’t work out, he said, he was committed to fulfilling his duty.
“I remember growing up in Nigeria – we lived under a dictatorship, and we couldn’t really say what was on our minds without the threat of someone coming in and arresting us,” he said. “So part of that was my reason for joining the Army – paying back the country that opened its arms for me and accepted me.”
He remembers the duration of his Iraq tour in detail: “11 months, 15 days, 22 hours and about 19 minutes.”
Akanni’s work as a field artillery surveyor involved setting up and mapping out battle positioning, but he said he rarely did that. Mostly, he said, he was involved in convoys and transporting personnel and supplies among five nearby camps.
Camp Anaconda was supposed to be one of the safest bases in Iraq, but during summer 2004, rogue Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was waging a holy war against coalition forces. His Mujahideen fighters were sending rocket and mortar rounds over the walls of the base two or three times a day.
So Akanni was on high alert, even while in the confines of the base, and he said he remembers standing on a high platform when a mortar round came sailing overhead. It landed in the middle of the workspace of Filipino contractors and sent a massive mushroom cloud of dust and smoke high into the air around the base.
Although he counted the days, his tour of duty in Iraq was a positive experience, Akanni said.
He said he learned a lot about different cultures and made lifelong friendships.
He also learned one cannot change someone’s mind by firing a gun and that only through responsible dialogue will the threats of terrorism and extremism be quashed, he said.
Davis and Peterson said they agree, to a certain extent, that the ends justify the means in the case of Iraq. Each said he believes that regardless of prewar intelligence, Saddam needed to be removed.
Akanni said, “Despite the growing casualties, only time will tell if we were right in invading Iraq. World War II is often described as the last noble war, but we also have to remember that millions of people gave their lives in that conflict, and, thanks to them, Europe’s a lot more peaceful. I pray and hope Iraq is able to be stabilized like Europe and history looks graciously at me and my fellow soldiers.”
Akanni said he would like to see more accountability among those who pushed for war based on intelligence that later proved false.
“It’s also very interesting: We went to war on very faulty intelligence, and no one has been fired for that,” he said. “To me, you can’t have a job, and create that big a mistake, and get away scott-free.”
A new generation of vets
All three men said that they take pride in the job they did while stationed overseas.
Davis said the experience gave him a more rounded worldview.
“It gave me a more global perspective. That’s something I didn’t have before,” he said. “They were just wars, but they taught me how hard people in other places have it and how great I have it.”
Peterson said it made him a stronger person, but he made it through unchanged.
“The weird thing about me is, after basic, after (Advanced Individual Training), I’m still the same weird guy I always have been,” he said. “And I almost pride myself on that, because I don’t think I’ve changed.”
Davis said it’s important for people to realize the face of “veterans” is changing.
“Veterans are no longer the older gentlemen from Vietnam or World War II, drinking a beer at the Legion,” he said. “They’re now people our age. They are 18 to 25 years old, and they need as much support here as they can get.”
Davis said he is lobbying for veterans’ rights in Minnesota, a state “grossly underprepared” to deal with this newest generation of soldiers.
Akanni’s six-year active duty commitment ends in August, and Davis’ is also over this year. Peterson is committed to active duty until 2007, when the Minnesota National Guard is scheduled to be deployed. He said he is unsure yet whether he will be sent.
The horrors of war still sting somewhere in these men’s minds. But they are making the transition back to civilian life in their own ways. From the searing heat of the Iraqi desert to the frigid chill of the Minnesota wind. From the chaos of war to the calm of civilian life. From the rigid structure of the military to the rampant disarray of reality. From the garden and all the way back home.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Akanni said. “I went to Iraq, which is supposed to be Mesopotamia, which is supposed to be the cradle of civilization, and saw the very worst civilization had to offer.”