Student Soldiers and the Presidential Election
Updated November 04, 2004
Thousands of young American men and women join different branches of the military for the same reason – to pay for their college tuition. Many join the National Guard because they can serve while attending classes.
Today, those student soldiers are marching across the globe fighting in the “war on terror.” Studies left behind, a gun in their hand instead of a pencil, some families are outraged. Isn’t the National Guard supposed to protect people in the United States? Why are their sons and daughters flying to the Middle East and Europe instead? These questions are only a few that families of those serving in the National Guard ask. Ironically, both President George W. Bush and presidential candidate John Kerry avoid answering these questions.
One Students Story
Luis Rivera is a student at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. He recently transferred from the University of Kentucky and he is also a soldier in the National Guard. When Rivera moved to Gainesville, he transferred to the National Guard base in Jacksonville. The first week of school went as planned and Luis signed up for classes and began his studies. “It all changed when we started getting hit by hurricanes. One night we were having dinner and he got the call. They needed him in recovery efforts in south Florida – and he had to leave the next morning,” says Brenda Rivera, Luis’ sister.
Brenda is a senior at the University of Florida. Luis is now helping clean up the damage from hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan. “I keep trying to think we’re lucky he wasn’t deployed overseas. At least he’s safer here,” says Brenda.
Luis says he’s disappointed and a little angry that he had to leave school so soon, “I knew what I had to do when I signed up, but I didn’t expect to be leaving school the first week to help clean up the mess from Charley. I thought I’d be going to Iraq.”
Brenda says that she doesn’t think the United States should be fighting some other country’s war. “If Luis went over there and got hurt, I think it would be stupid for him to be there in the first place. I’d be really mad at the government. Right now I don’t know, I’m just glad he’s not there.” But many students are.
Student Soldiers in Iraq
So far in the “war on terror”, five Florida National Guards have been killed in combat operations. According to Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, the spokesman for the Florida National Guard, more than 100 soldiers have been wounded, and many have been medically discharged.
Staff Sgt. Dustin Tuller is medically discharged from the National Guard. While deployed in Iraq, his unit was ambushed. During the ambush, both of his legs were riddled with bullets and doctors were forced to amputate both of his legs.
He came home to a wife and two children. They were just glad he was alive. According to Tuller, “I would still serve.” That is the response from many injured soldiers returning home.
Spc. Aaron Irvin is a member of the Illinois National Guard. Irvin was forced to drop his classes in 2003 to serve in Iraq. Since then, he has visited home for a total of two weeks. Irvin, via e-mail, says that every day brings something new. Explosions around his camp are so common that they are almost unnoticeable.
Pictures of troops in Saddam Hussein’s palace and standing in the sands show what the soldiers live in. Daytime temperatures can top 130 degrees. Explosions are a constant. Yet the soldiers go on, living and fulfilling their duties – and writing home and working out and trying to keep their spirits up. “We’re just a bunch of Bush supporters over here. The first time we entered a newly freed city it was like we were presidents. Children and families were cheering and waving and running with us. They even tried hugging us. I got choked up just seeing them. They lived in the worst poverty I’ve ever seen,” says Irvin.
What Does the President Say?
According to President George W. Bush, “We will either fight the terrorists abroad, or face the consequences at home.” Bush is in the process of reorganizing the military. He wants to create a force of easily deployable troops with great levels of skills. This is in order to restructure the U.S.’s military presence overseas. Bush doesn’t want to add to the forces, only make them more effective. He is also working to re-evaluate how intelligence agencies work in the United States. New positions are being created in order to intertwine the intelligence agencies so they are able to work together more effectively.
The President himself was a member of the National Guard.
What Does John Kerry say?
Presidential candidate John Kerry believes the US is being a bully to other countries and losing respect all over the world. He wants to modernize the U.S. armed forces to make sure they are able to deal with the modern devices used in terrorism. He also wants to make sure the U.S. has enough troops to fight the “war on terror.” Not only should the troops be deployed, Kerry wants every aspect of the U.S. to fight terrorism, including intelligence forces and good-old American values. Kerry believes that President Bush made a mistake by focusing on Iraq, that it was sidetracking from the real “war on terror.” Most of all, Kerry proclaims that he wants peace. He believes peace is the only way to gain respect throughout the world.
What Does the National Guard Do?
National Guard members commit four to six years of their lives to the armed forces. In peacetime they serve one weekend a month and a two-week long session during the year. But if ever they are needed, they have to be ready to leave to go wherever their superiors decide. It doesn’t matter if they are in the middle of a semester or in the middle of finals week. If they are called up, they have to go.
Lt. Col. Tittle is the spokesman for the Florida National Guard. He estimates that more than 25-percent of the Florida National Guard is made of students. There are a few thousand student soldiers in Florida alone. He says that the National Guard is a supplement to active duty military personal such as full-time ARMY or Air Force. Because of past decisions to shrink the size of full-time military, there are no longer enough troops in the full-time standing army to fight in a global war, such as the “war on terror.” Since Sept. 11, 2001, almost three-quarters of the National Guard has been deployed, or sent overseas to help full-time forces. These soldiers are trained in all of the same ways that full-timers are. They learn survival and fighting skills, as well as specialized skills. Some of these include transportation, engineering, security, Special Forces, delivery, and in Air National Guard. Tittle says that these civilian soldiers often work day-to-day in a job related to their specializations in the National Guard, which adds to their expertise.
Why are Students Joining the National Guard?
With so many students joining the National Guard, it’s obvious there is an attraction to the organization.
Tittle says that there are two major reasons students join the national Guard. One is patriotism. According to Tittle, “They want to serve something greater than themselves...” The second reason students join the National Guard is educational benefits. The National Guard pays its members, but also offers college assistance. Assistance can go as far as paying for all of the soldier’s tuition and even for other expenses related to attending school. Free college is a definite incentive to serving one’s country.
So What Now?
Once the American people decide who the next President of the United States will be, they can begin asking their questions. One will definitely be “Why are our sons and daughters in the National Guard overseas defending an unknown country?” Perhaps the answer to the question will bring the troops back home. Perhaps it will deploy even more.
Right now, both the Democrats and the Republicans are caught up in campaigning for the Presidency. President Bush is defending his actions, while Kerry is trying to convince he can help resolve Bush’s “mistakes.” But both seem to agree that the “war on terror” will not be over as soon as the election ends. Both will continue sending troops, and as long as that happens, more students will trade their books for bombs.
For now people like Brenda Rivera will be keeping an eye on the election and what both candidates say about national security, and if they plan to send more students, like her brother Luis, to Iraq.
Talia Pate can be reached at Talia82@ufl.edu