Students who serve

Britt Johnsen

University student Jonathan Gill said he has always been hungry for experience.

When Gill signed up for the Marines, the thought of fighting in a war was in the back of his mind, but he was mostly thinking about the valuable experiences he might gain.

“Every guy wants adventure – something dangerous, meaningful, exciting,” Gill said. “Every day was a new experience.”

Gill 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 today through Thursday.

Gill was notified of his deployment at a regular weekend drill in January. On Feb. 5, he flew to North Carolina for training with other Marines before leaving Feb. 13 for Kuwait.

Once in the Middle East, Gill and some fellow Marines worked as military police officers. On March 20, he and others set out into Iraq.

Driving in Humvees, their trip lasted three weeks as they stopped to secure areas. All the Iraqis his group encountered surrendered.

Gill said the best moment was when he and others were able to take off their chemical protection gear.

The gear consisted of plastic gas masks, green camouflage overalls and a vest lined with charcoal that absorbs chemicals.

He said shedding the chemical suit for the standard jacket, helmet and khaki-colored denim pants also helped him shed fear.

No one in his company died or got hurt and many of their experiences were lighthearted, he said.

“It’s so American to laugh in the face of anything tragic, like death,” Gill said. “Everybody’s a joker.”

Gill’s toughest day was the day of a sandstorm when the only thing he and his teammates could feasibly eat was Skittles, he said.

It was the biggest sandstorm Iraq had seen in more than 100 years and extended for hundreds of miles, he said.

For 19 hours, they sat in the back of their Humvees cleaning out their dust masks every five minutes.

“Iraqis are superstitious,” Gill said. “It was an omen of doom. It meant the end of the world for them. A few days later, the U.S. was in Baghdad.”

After that, Gill worked as a traffic controller in Baghdad. In April, he and other Marines returned to Kuwait, where they worked until June inspecting more than 10,000 Marines headed home.

Gill said he feels fortunate he had the experience without anyone in his company getting hurt or having to hurt anyone during a fearful time.

“At the time, it’s just the way it is,” Gill said. “You don’t have time to sit there and cry. You wanted to, for sure, but you do what you need to do.”

Excited and relieved to be back, Gill said he did not realize how many friends he had until he got back. With an array of experiences to talk about, he shares pictures and stories with groups of his family and friends.

One of those friends, Audra Harpel, a University senior and a friend of Gill’s for more than four years, said it is a relief to have Gill back.

“It was hard (while he was gone). We knew he was going to do well, but at the same time, we didn’t know where he was or if he was in danger,” she said.

Now that he is back, Gill’s main goal is to finish school. The 23-year-old English and linguistics major has four semesters left. It is possible he will have to return to Iraq, he said.

“The only worse news we could have gotten is that we’d leave next week,” Gill said. He and the other military police officers in the Marine reserves find out in January if they go back, he said.

Gill said he does not plan to go back to the military when his service in the Marines is up in two years. He has no regrets about the military, he said: Like many things in his life, it was an experience he wanted to have.

“My life is different now. I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” Gill said. “I’m a part of history. It’s not just what I did last week.”