Six months into my junior year at Bowdoin College, I was deployed to Iraq with the Marines. I went from sitting in my Middle East politics class in a quaint Maine town to patrolling the war-torn city of Fallujah. My two lives could not have been more different: I didn't write papers, play soccer or see kegs in Anbar province. But both Bowdoin and the Marines have made me who I am today. I joined the Marine Reserves for the same reasons I chose Bowdoin: to learn, to meet new people, to improve myself and to gain new perspectives. (Article continued below...)
When I returned to school after my yearlong tour of duty, I re-entered my Middle East politics class and wrote my final paper on the political choices facing Iraq. Knowing how to detect an IED doesn't help much with a 12-page essay. But I was a better Marine for learning about the Arab world in the classroom, and I was a better student because of the eight months I lived on the front lines of the Arab world.
When I switched from campus to combat zone, I still carried my other life with me, just like my fellow Marines who left their civilian lives to serve our country. I was always eager for the arrival of the mail convoy, which carried with it notes from friends and family, professors and staff at Bowdoin. Back home, people still ask me why I joined. There isn't a single answer. As a kid, I kept a poster of a Marine in my room and was always interested in the military. In the Maine town where I grew up, most people do not go to college. Bowdoin seemed like another world. I wanted to get an education and do something honorable; joining the Marine Reserves was a way to serve others and to move the country forward.
I knew the possibility of deployment was real when I signed up in 2002, but I never thought I would serve in a war I didn't support. In the classroom at Bowdoin, you're expected to challenge your professors and peers. But in a war zone things are different. I know that despite my personal opinions, it was, and is, an honor to serve alongside my fellow Marines. On the front lines, there is no place for politics.
Many also ask how I balanced moving from a liberal campus to a conservative battalion. We had many debates within our platoon and we learned from each perspective. When the Bowdoin College Democrats and Students for Peace sent care packages, I saw the labels, removed them, passed out the granola and received comments on how good the food was. I decided to let everyone know where it came from and expected to hear a number of taunting comments, yet everyone was happy that these organizations were supporting us regardless of their opinion on the war.
I spent most of a year surrounded by many who lacked basic services in a war zone, yet the food bank in my town has to serve more than 9,000 meals—a reality that motivated me to stay active on campus. I returned to help lead the Bowdoin and Maine College Democrats, and I joined the College Democrats of America's executive board. I've become active in the organization VoteVets, where I worked to help pass the 21st Century GI Bill and to run for Maine's Legislature to focus on veterans' issues and ending poverty.
Both Bowdoin and the Marines taught me that service has no political party, no original location. The Marines taught me strength, vigilance and discipline. They opened my eyes to the dangers that most of our citizenry never think about and the honor that comes with service. Bowdoin taught me the values of activism, debate, intellectual curiosity and the importance of political participation. Each of these values helped instill in me the common notion that if we really want to help change our communities, big and small, we must get involved, respect each other and never give up on our visions for tomorrow.