Sincerely, John Maynard: Gatepost alum recalls writing a column while serving in Iraq

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

I was drawn to the military by the promise of free college with the GI Bill and really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t politically minded and though 9/11 occurred just nine months prior to my enlistment, I was clueless that a major war was on the horizon. I was living in Washington State when the twin towers fell and it felt different for me, I imagine, than it did for those living in Boston or New York; it felt farther away.  

In late 2002, the Army began offering previously unheard of 2-year enlistment opportunities that included GI Bill privileges. Normally, you’d have to serve four years to get those benefits. At 18 years old, I was unwilling to commit four years of my life to service but I was onboard with the truncated version. I thought I was getting the better end of the deal until the bombs started dropping on Bagdad in March of 2003. As an infantryman in an army that had just declared war, everything suddenly felt a lot closer to home. 

After basic training I was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Georgia, but got selected for a temporary duty assignment at the Natick Soldier Systems Center which would delay my arrival to my unit. Natick liked my work and I kept getting offered extension after extension until, miraculously, my enlistment was over and I was released from active duty.  While most other soldiers at the time got “stop-lossed,” meaning that because of the ongoing conflict they were denied their scheduled discharge – in many cases waiting years past their promised departure date – Natick was a non-deployable unit and therefore I was actually allowed to go home. I had successfully avoided the war, or so I thought. 

I loved my time in Natick, made some great friends in the area and decided to pursue college at nearby Framingham State College. My Army buddy and I were planning on walking on the Ram’s football team but he bailed out on me at the last minute, along with half the rent money, and I ended up sleeping in my Geo Metro in the Walmart parking lot for the first 4 weeks of Fall semester because of the unexpected lag between school enrollment and GI Bill disbursement. I spent most of that time between the library and the gym, so at least homelessness was productive, albeit very cold that October. 

I was just finishing up junior year when I got a letter from the Department of Defense ordering me to report for duty at Fort Hood, Texas, in two months. I was unaware that although I signed up for two years initially, the Army could scoop me back up anytime they wanted. Six years after I enlisted, having been a civilian for four years, the Army had caught up with me and I was headed back to the Army for a tour in Iraq. That process is part of what is called the IRR, or individual ready reserve. Lesson learned: always read the fine print.

I was called back to the Army, I learned, because the 442nd Infantry Regiment based out of American Samoa had lost a significant portion of their unit during their first deployment to Iraq and, gearing up for a second tour, needed fresh bodies to fill those gaps. I was one of those bodies. I was taking a journalism course at that time and Professor McCarthy suggested I take advantage of this experience by being an embedded war reporter for The Gatepost.  In my articles, I tried to be as honest about the situation as possible and it was cathartic to reflect on that experience in real time and rewarding to see my articles shared with the college community back home. The Framingham State community was incredibly supportive of our efforts overseas, sending the 442nd regular care packages and as a token of our appreciation, we sent back one of our tactical uniform blouses complete with all the unit badges and insignia, signed by my entire platoon. All of the guys enjoyed reading the articles and it made us feel special. 

My tour turned out to be an unexpectedly positive experience. The war was winding down significantly in 2008 after President Obama took office, and we didn’t experience much enemy contact. I worked hard, received a battlefield promotion to sergeant, made some great friends and learned all about the incredibly vibrant Samoan culture to which I was immersed. We did lose two men during that deployment, which is absolutely tragic, but compared to the five years of coalition fighting prior to our deployment, we got through it apparently unscathed…. Unfortunately, too many war injuries become apparant only after returning home and the epidemic of soldier suicide remains one of the biggest legacies of the war on terror. About 7,000 US soldiers laid down their lives for this country between Iraq and Afghanistan and so far over 30,000 took their own lives after coming home. There is something terribly wrong with those numbers. The primitive burn pits used for incinerating trash on bases have also caused an alarming number of cancers and lung issues among those of us who breathed those fumes. 
Eight years after joining the Army, I found myself graduating summa cum laude with the 2010 class at Framingham State.  My major was English with a concentration in writing. I received a top notch education at Framingham and had some professors who still affect my outlook on life. I took a position with the US Department of State at the Vermont Passport Agency in late 2010.  Since then, I’ve bounced around a few other agencies, did some visa work at the US Embassy in Beirut and eventually made my way back to the Vermont Passport Agency as their operations officer. I went on to earn a Master of Science in Executive Leadership from Champlain College and still utilize my English degree from FSU, doing quite a bit of technical writing pertaining to the requisitions and purchasing for the agency and in my constant communications with government stakeholders, architects, space planners and construction contractors.