From a school zone to a war zone

April 19, 2007, midnight | By Isaac Arnsdorf | 13 years, 6 months ago

Two recent graduates and a teacher's fiancé prepare for deployments to Iraq

Jose Montoya graduated from Blair last spring. He'll most likely be in Iraq by this fall.

When Montoya, a private first class in the U.S. Marine Corps, finishes his training as a water support technician next month, he'll face one of three deployments. If he's assigned to a base on the East Coast, his six-month tour in Iraq will start in August. If he is deployed to the West Coast, he'll leave for Iraq in October. On the off chance that he's assigned to the highly selective Marines dispatch in Okinawa, Japan, he won't go to Iraq.

Despite the war's geographic remoteness, its immediacy deepens at home through the experiences of those who return and the memories of those who do not. Over 1.5 million Americans have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense, and as the U.S. troop presence in Iraq marked its fourth anniversary last month, that figure continues to climb. For a teacher's fiancé and two recent graduates who are preparing to join those ranks, they temper their anxieties and uncertainties with their courage and commitment.

From Blair to basic training to the battlefield

U.S. Army Health Care Specialist Sean Conte, who also graduated in 2006, won't know where he'll be deployed until he finishes boot camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and then job training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

But as a combat medic, the "combat" in his title means he's all but certainly headed for Iraq, he says.

He's not thrilled about the likelihood of going to war. He didn't join the Army wanting to fight in Iraq, but he says he has always wanted to enlist.

Conte's decision was not an expression of patriotism but an alternative path to getting an education for someone who always hated school. He finished a semester of college at Coastal Carolina University "for my parents," he says, before enlisting this past January.

Having become a certified emergency medical technician during high school, Conte saw joining the Army as an opportunity for training and experience. He knew an Iraq tour was also likely. "It's something you have to accept in the military," he says. "You have to be ready for it."

Last week, the Pentagon announced that the Army is extending the tours of duty for some units currently stationed in Iraq and for units deployed in the future. So if Conte is sent to Iraq, his tour will last 15 months.

Boot camp

Even though Conte doesn't know where he's headed after he graduates basic training, he'll be glad to put it behind him. It hasn't treated him well, but "it doesn't treat anybody well," he says. "It sucks, but it's temporary. Life in the military is not going to be like basic training."

Conte won't miss the push-ups, obstacle courses, weapons training or the gas chamber — a chemical weapons drill that exposes recruits to tear gas. "It's a lot like the movies," he says of boot camp.

Basic training was a "nightmare" for Montoya, too, he says. "It was 13 weeks of hell."
Montoya, who joined the Marines seeking a route to physical fitness and discipline as well as to earn money for college, was hardly prepared for the physical and psychological rigors of basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina.

The drill sergeants instill discipline by referring to enlistees in the third person, Montoya recalls. "Everything is this recruit or that recruit. You don't really have a name," he says. "They treat you kind of like a dog."

The recruits had to run three miles in under 24 minutes, with the drill sergeants yelling at their backs. They called it "motivation," Montoya jokes.

Boot camp concluded with "the crucible," the culminating three-day excursion when a recruit becomes a marine. Montoya and his unit hiked 42 miles in three days on two hours of sleep a night. For the last 10 miles, they carried 150-pound backpacks.

They returned to base, greeted by a commencement speech and a "warrior's breakfast," Montoya says. "We all threw up because we never had so much food."


For job training, Montoya knew he wanted to enter the engineering corps but not as a combat engineer. "I didn't want to go into combat, knowing how Iraq was," he says. "I could have been like Rambo, done combat, gone to Iraq and gotten myself killed."

Instead, Montoya is charged with supplying pure, safe drinking water to the troops. "The best machine in the world is a marine and his rifle," Montoya says, "and it runs on water."

Montoya expects to be patrolling convoys in Iraq this fall. "Insurgents tend to attack supplies," he says, "so you have to watch out for rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices."

He can't say he's not scared. "People ask me, 'What the hell are you doing? You're probably going to die,'" he says. "But straight out of a high school like Blair to something big like the Marines — putting on a uniform, making my parents proud — it's a big change."

"High risk"

Art teacher Leila Stork's fiancé, Captain Khari Wright of the U.S. Marine Corps, is already in the Middle East. His deployment is considered high-risk — as is any in the volatile region — but he's not in a war zone. At least not yet.

He's currently stationed in Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Stork was even able to visit him there over winter break. While he's in Bahrain, "I miss him, but I don't worry," Stork says.

But with that assignment expiring this summer, he expects his next deployment to include a tour in Iraq. He hasn't been there yet in his 18 years in the corps. Enlisting right after high school, Wright was in the reserves for 10 years and has been on active duty for eight.

Nothing's definite, but both Stork and Wright are preparing for the very real possibility that he'll be deployed to Iraq by this fall. "It's not easy to hear about the casualties or how many troops have been injured," Stork says. "But I say my prayers and hope that he'll come home."

Isaac Arnsdorf. <span style='display: none;'>Isaac Arnsdorf is a perfectionistic grammar nerd with no sense of humor. According to co-editor Allie O'Hora, "he enjoys listening to rhythmless, atonal 'music' and reading the encyclopedia." He sleeps with the Manifesto under his pillow.</span> More »

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