Military activates student soldiers

Libby George

While some students paint yard signs and galvanize opposition to military buildup in the Persian Gulf, others are dropping classes and packing their bags to join the troops.

The Defense Department estimated Saturday that approximately 150,000 U.S. troops have been deployed in the Persian Gulf – thousands of them Minnesotans.

On Wednesday, 38,649 more National Guard troops and reservists of the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy were called to active duty – including 1,054 Minnesotans.

For University junior Kim Swanson – an Army reservist who was called to active duty and deployed to Fort McCoy in Sparta, Wis., last Thursday – the call-up means leaving behind more than just her education.

Swanson was given four hours to get married at a Stillwater courthouse the day before she deployed. At a farewell celebration in Ellsworth, Wis., on Thursday, Swanson was still shell-shocked.

“I don’t know; it hasn’t really hit me,” Swanson said. “I’m sure it will.”

Her new husband, Josh Elhorst, is also in the reserves, and his unit is on high alert -meaning he will likely ship out by March.

Dropping it all

Major Kevin Olson, National Guard spokesman, said anyone in the Guard or the reserves can be called up at any time, a decision based solely on need.

“It’s not geographic, and it’s not because it’s their turn,” Olson said, “We have no advance notice.”

For students, this means dropping everything in their lives with little warning.

According to officials with the National Guard and Army Reserves, troops are put on “high alert” when need for their type of service is high, and they are given a week’s notice to prepare for deployment when activated.

For second-year student Jeremiah Peterson, who is in the Army National Guard, activation is only a matter of time.

“My battalion was activated last weekend. There’s four batteries, and I’m the only one hanging on, waiting to get called up,” Peterson said. “My battalion has already been told to get ready.”

According to the Army Reserve, President George W. Bush has the authority to call up as many as 250,000 troops – meaning the current activation could be just the beginning.

Olson said that with the war on terror and the buildup, activation has been high, and the only safe military group is the ROTC, which trains officers.

“The Reserves and the National Guard train to the same degree as the active forces,” Olson said. “But (ROTC) cadets are not deployable.”

Keeping educated

Swanson’s main concern, however, was her education.

For Swanson, Peterson and other students, getting called up could put their education plans on hold for good.

“I just hope I can finish with it,” Swanson said, who had to withdraw from all her classes when she was activated.

University policy allows students called to active duty to either withdraw from all classes with a full tuition refund or take incompletes that can be finished when they return – usually within one year.

Registrar’s Office employee Tina Falkner said the office, which tracks students who apply for military leaves of absence, received “quite a few” applications following Sept. 11, 2001, but fewer than five within the past year.

However, since the beginning of the term on Jan. 21, 12 students have applied for military leaves of absence.

Peterson, a chemistry major considering medical school, said activation would make him think twice about medicine.

“I’m determined to get an education,” Peterson said. “A lot of people give up.”

He added that if he is called up, he might not go to medical school.

“Two years behind, I mean, I’ll be about 80 when I’m done,” he said.

Activation orders are generally “cut” for six months to one year but can be extended to up to two years on Bush’s orders.

Although University policy usually allows one year to finish incompletes, the Registrar’s Office tracks students called to military duty and allows them more time if they are kept away longer.

Destination unknown

According to Reserve and Guard officials, after troops are called up, they are first sent to “mobilization sites” to finish training and get gear together, but their final destinations are uncertain.

“We really don’t know, and the unit doesn’t really know where they’ll be sent,” Olson said.

He said troops usually find out where they are going at the mobilization site.

For Peterson, only one place would suit him: Iraq.

“If I go, that’s where I want to go,” Peterson said.

Peterson said although he supports the war, he initially signed up for the financial benefits.

“Everybody wants to say, ‘I want to serve my country, patriotism,’ but most people go in for the money,” he said.

He added that although going to war would be “seriously detrimental” to his education, he thinks Iraq has been given its fair chance.

“You gotta put your foot down at one time,” Peterson said. “Something has to be done, because they’re not listening to anyone.”

– Jens Krogstad contributed to this report

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]