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Innocence lost
The story of several young Wisconsinsites whose "me years" were violently interrupted by the perils of war

by Clint Robus

I remember sitting on that balmy, sun-baked beach in Panama City, Fla., mid-March 2003. Holed-up in a two-bed hotel room with eight (that’s right, eight) other 20-year-old males, I was experiencing an annual rite of passage for most college students: spring break. Sure we had fun, like so many other college students across the country. We hit the clubs, partied on the beach and chased women.

But one day during that whirlwind week of crazy late nights stands out. No beach party, wet t-shirt contest or offer of free beer could pry our butts off the beds and chairs. All eight of us sat glued to the television screen as we watched American military forces bombard Baghdad, Iraq. We were at war.

Later I tried to push the thought to the back of my mind. International matters were of little consequence. Which club to attend that night was the most important decision I had to make. I did not want to think about what this war meant. College years are spent in carefree self-discovery. The real world is so close, yet kept at bay by the moments of immaturity and youthful revelry. True, one grows and finds a certain personal identity during college. But I do not believe any of us, myself included, realized there were college students just like us, entrenched half-a-world away in the middle of the desert in the middle of conflict. I certainly never thought that anyone close to me would be drawn into the conflict in the Middle East. Life has a funny way of throwing you a curveball when you least expect it.

But as I was enjoying myself on that beach in Florida, two friends and high school classmates, Laura Schultz and Carlye Garcia, were reporting to Ft. McCoy for training and eventual deployment to Iraq. Laura and Carlye have been close friends since middle school. Together they signed up for the Army National Guard during our senior year of high school, mainly for the financial benefits. The National Guard is state-owned and mainly intended for homeland security and to help with natural disasters and riots. There was a chance they would be deployed in a time of emergency, but they never thought they would end up in Iraq by June 2003 and stay there for 13 months.

“We didn’t find out we were going to Iraq until two days before we left,” Laura tells me after returning to the states last July. “It was a lot of not sleeping. Nobody knew what we were going to do. We would get up early, 6 a.m., and train all day, then do it all over again.”

Once in Baghdad, Laura served as a National Guard specialist, teaching “police how to be police.” If a crime was committed, the Iraqi police “would arrest everyone and put them in jail,” Laura says. “We had to teach them what questions to ask to find out the whole story.”

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Army National Guard Specialist Carlye Garcia "pulls guard duty" at a security post atop the roof of a Baghdad police station. Photo courtesy Carlye Garcia