A University graduate student tells his story, offers insight from the desert as a member of the National Guard

By Matt Lawson

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a semi-regular opinions feature from Captain Matt Lawson, a University of Illinois student currently serving in Iraq. Readers are highly encouraged to send questions about military life and feedback about columns by e-mail to Matt at [email protected]

Studying abroad often conjures up images of time spent exploring new cultures, learning a new language and discovering a lot about yourself. I hope to do all of that and more, even if my experience may be a little different.

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I was a student at the University of Illinois last semester, but as classes began in Champaign-Urbana on Aug. 19, I was on a flight to Iraq, to begin my year with the Army, “studying abroad.” After a few e-mails with The Daily Illini staff, we thought it might be interesting to get a perspective on the ground in Iraq from a former and (hopefully) future UIUC student.

My name is Captain Matt Lawson, and I was a graduate student and TA in Electrical Engineering. I was in the Individual Ready Reserve, a program for former active duty soldiers, from which they can be mobilized if needed for another tour of duty with the Army. I never thought it would really happen, but it did, so I’ve begun to relearn how the Army does things.

I’m the Battalion S-6 for 1-131st Aviation (Air Assault) – allow me to translate that into English. The Battalion S-6, or Signal Officer, is responsible for all of the computers, radios and telephones in a unit. Essentially I run a help desk, and when people have equipment that doesn’t work, my team and I try to figure out what is wrong. Our unit flies Blackhawk helicopters, similar to the ones in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” Air Assault means we’re capable of flying troops into remote locations and dropping them off so they can perform their missions. It gives the ground forces the advantage of surprise, which can help a lot here when trying to capture insurgent leaders, and it keeps them off the roads, which negates the IEDs, also known as Improvised Explosive Devices, or booby traps, which can be found in some areas.

My unit is part of the Alabama National Guard and previously helped with Hurricane Katrina relief. Some of the soldiers have done previous combat deployments, including Desert Storm, Kosovo, Afghanistan and there are even two soldiers who are Vietnam veterans. For the majority though, this is their first combat experience, and while many are nervous and miss their families, most are prepared and eager to start doing their job and to “just get it over with.”

I’ve already done one year in Iraq, from 2003-2004. I wouldn’t say I’m happy to be back, but it’s also not that bad. The first time I went I was much more enthusiastic, but this time I think I’m a little more mature, and I am better prepared for all the things that the war can send my way. Or at least I hope I’m better prepared, I guess we’ll see. It makes my parents happy though that I’m in an Aviation unit this time around. It’s probably not quite as dangerous as my first tour, when I had to drive on the roads of the so called “Triangle of Death.”

Nowhere here is totally without danger. We’ve only been here a couple of weeks and some of our aircraft have been hit by ground fire. My friend, Captain Mike Armstrong, a once and future history teacher from Indiana, was at the controls of one helicopter. “It sounded like someone was shooting an M4 right beside me, it was so loud,” he told me afterwards. Nobody was hurt on that helicopter, but it did serve to remind everyone of the potential dangers here. Mike and I celebrated after he landed with other friends, and made a couple of toasts with our taxpayer-funded non-alcoholic Beck’s beer. It wasn’t much of a celebration, but you do the best you can with what you’ve got.

And that’s the way it goes around here. It’s like a rollercoaster, slow and boring at times, fast and furious for brief periods.

E-mail me with the questions you have. Otherwise I’ll just be writing about how life goes on here and about the people who make the helicopters fly and save lives doing it.

87 days down, 277 to go.