Some students find their calling in armed forces

By Supriya Sinhababu

During his second year in the College, Rosendo Garza saw something on a crowded campus bulletin board that would change his life: a poster for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Platoon Leader’s Class (PLC).

“I saw the flyer, I spoke to a captain, and I thought it would be a really cool experience to do leadership and physical training,” said Garza, who graduated in 2002 and has served as a Marine Corps captain on three combat tours in Iraq. “This school is hard, but [only] academically.”

Garza is one of a handful of University graduates who have served in the current war in Iraq. Though the University Registrar keeps no comprehensive record of alumni and current students serving either in Iraq or the military in general, the Alumni Career Network lists more than 20 alumni currently working in the armed services.

While support for the war in Iraq and financial assistance for further education are some of the most prominent reasons for young people to join the military today, Garza was drawn in by the Marine Corps experience.

“My fourth year, I decided to join,” said Garza, who concentrated in Biology and Latin American Studies. “Up until that point I was juggling medical school or the Marine Corps. I took my MCAT and everything, but…I’m young, and I [wanted] to do something different.”

First Lt. Diem Vo of the US Army felt driven to break out of academia as well.

“My father was in the military, and I’ve always wanted to jump out of airplanes, so I wanted to have something adventurous to do,” said Vo, who graduated with a degree in political science in 2003. “I didn’t really want to go to grad school because undergrad was kind of crazy at the U of C. I wanted to take some time off.”

Joining the military was a choice Vo and Garza sometimes found difficult to explain to others. Vo’s father, a former soldier himself, wanted his son to stay as far from the military as possible.

“His view was, ‘Well, you have a very extensive undergraduate education, so you should do something better with your life,’” Vo said. “And I was like, ‘I’ll do my own thing.’ ”

Though Garza’s family was more supportive of his decision, he often faces critical questions as a recruiter.

“I get that all the time—not ‘why the Marine Corps?’ or ‘why the military?’ but ‘why does a U of C grad join the military?’—especially from people who come from Ivy League schools, schools from good academic standing,” said Garza.

Vo noted that he was “one of the only ones in my peer group who did not go to the investment banks.”

But over their college years, Vo and Garza realized that civilian jobs would not satisfy them. After spending several weeks camping in the backcountry of the Pacific Crest Trail, Vo decided he wanted a career that would keep him outdoors. During summer breaks, Garza completed two six-week PLC courses at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, where he received intensive training on subjects such as leadership, weapons handling, and marksmanship.

“I never saw the military as a last resort, because that’s definitely not the case,” said Garza. “It’s really hard to be selected for this program…so when I got selected, I knew that I was at least worthy enough to get a shot at OCS [Officer Candidates School].”

In Iraq, Vo and Garza have served on multiple combat tours since the invasion. On separate tours, Vo has worked as a gunner and a mechanized infantry platoon leader, serving primarily to root out insurgents and rebuild local infrastructure. Garza, an infantry officer, spent his last deployment almost exclusively on training a division of the Iraqi army.

The debates over the origins of and solutions to the Iraq conflict, which have dominated public discourse for nearly five years in the U.S., are mostly background noise to forces on the ground in Iraq, Vo says. However, the personal sacrifices he has accepted as a soldier still trouble him as a father and a family man. “The human cost—on both sides of the war, both Iraqi and American—is certainly something that’s not really being looked at,” he said.

Politics back home have made Garza feel somewhat dwarfed by the circumstances of the war. “At the end of the day I realize that I’m such a small component of this larger bureaucracy, this larger political machine, that I don’t really have control of,” he said,

But like Vo, Garza also realizes that the indifference of the larger political machine never diminishes the impact of soldiers’ deaths on their families. He dealt with the pressure of leading very young Marines, including recent high school graduates and men in their early 20s already supporting wives and young children.

For Garza, though, this added responsibility motivates more than burdens him. “At the end of the day, these guys join the Marine Corps for whatever reason and in my opinion they deserve good leaders,” he said. “So I didn’t see how my beliefs politically or where I came from mean that they shouldn’t have the best leader possible. And that’s what I try to be for them.”