Every day, she wonders when the letter will come.
Q Gaynor, a UW-Madison senior and four-year-long member of the Wisconsin National Guard, knows that even as she goes about day-to-day obligations of coursework and classes, life as she now knows it is about to radically change.
Within the year, she expects to be called up to serve in Iraq.
“It’s not a matter of if I’m going to be sent, but when,” Gaynor said.
For many enlisted students like Gaynor, the possibility they will have to put their life on the line halfway across the world is something they are forced to deal with on a daily basis.
“If they are going to call me up, they are going to call me up,” UW senior and National Guard member Dan Fuhrmann said, adding he sometimes avoids listening to news reports about Iraq because it makes him worry about a war he is powerless to control. “I don’t like to fret.”
But living with that knowledge is not the only hard thing about being a student soldier. Surrounded by a civilian world, intensified by a liberal campus unfamiliar with the realities of military service and sacrifice, makes it doubly difficult, says Gaynor.
“It’s very isolating to be in the military, especially on campus,” Gaynor said, noting she often gets frustrated by the sacrifice she is required to make when others her age do not seem to take the conflict in Iraq seriously. “It’s hard to see students being so causal about this.”
Although typically taking a low profile, the UW community is home to a number of members of the armed forces either serving in the ROTC or the Wisconsin National Guard. Except when they wear their uniforms to class, those who serve in the armed forces are often just as anonymous as any other student at UW.
Yet on some occasions, these student soldiers find themselves forced into the campus spotlight.
Those who serve are often resigned as the odd-man-out during classroom discussions about the war, sometimes rendering other students speechless once they reveal themselves as a member of the military. Many simply prefer not to debate with other students altogether, choosing to avoid confrontation with individuals who simply don’t understand what the real-life realities of the war in Iraq are.
“I think a lot of people are opinionated without really knowing what they are talking about,” Amanda Gino, a UW freshman and student veteran, said. “You have to look at the whole picture. A lot of people say ‘I hate Bush, I hate Bush.’ But hating Bush isn’t going to solve anything.”
Gino, who served in Iraq shortly after the United States declared war in March 2003, said interactions with other students who know she is a veteran can sometimes be awkward, but she still never has had a bad experience on campus because of her military service.
Her relationship with the university bureaucracy, however, is another story.
Although originally from Hawaii, Gino expected to register as an in-state student when registering for classes at the UW after serving in Iraq as a member of the Wisconsin National Guard. But when she returned from her tour, Gino discovered she was still classified as an out-of-state student.
The Wisconsin State Legislature eventually took up Gino’s cause, passing legislation stating that individuals entitled to Wisconsin veterans benefits are also granted in-state tuition rates.
Gino was able to enroll as an in-state student, but the problems she faced when making the transition from soldier to student remain indicative of the troubles most returning military personnel face when re-enrolling at the UW.
“It’s an administrative nightmare,” said recent UW graduate Connie Fuehrer, who also served in Iraq with Gino. “I came back to so many things left unfinished.”
Fuehrer said although administration officials tried to help her as she re-enrolled into the university, her transition back to being a college student was less than smooth. She was often ill-advised about veterans benefits, had to deal with student records no longer available when she returned, not to mention the problem of professors unwilling to give the graduating senior a place in their class.
But despite the hassle to get back into school, Fuehrer said she never regrets her time serving the U.S. military.
“[The military] made college possible for me,” she said, adding that coming from a family of six children made enlisting the only viable path to getting a degree.
Yet it is for that very reason some students on campus protest the war and the military presence at the UW.
Samuel Swenson, student organizer of the campus group Stop the War, says many young people are falling victim to the “Poverty Draft,” which he says pulls students into the service by paying for their college tuition.
Some students in the armed forces, however, have been offended by the protesters’ efforts even though they understand they are not directed at individual members of the military.
“I’ve been called names in a uniform, I’ve been spit on in a uniform,” Fuehrer said. “I think it’s pretty clear they care for the troops and are just protesting [the war]. So I try not to take it personally.”
Student protestors say they do not condemn the soldiers, but rather are only attacking those policies and decision-makers putting military personnel in harm’s way.
“For one, we support our troops. We believe fighting against the occupation is the best way to support our troops,” Swenson said.
But student soldiers, more often than not, say they believe in the cause they are called up to fight for. Gino said serving in Iraq solidified her belief that U.S. intervention is justified.
“[Serving] definitely changed a lot about how I think about things,” she said. “[But] no matter what people say, I think as a country with so many privileges we should be helping others.”
“I think pulling out 100 percent of the troops now would leave Iraq in chaos,” she said, adding, however, that despite her belief that the United States must continue to aid Iraq, those called to serve should always call into question the sacrifice others are asking them to make.
“If I believe anyone should be there, I think we should go. But I’m going to question it. I’m going to question the hell out of it.”