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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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AU alums share stories of wartime service

Correction appended

Veteran. The word conjures up images of loyal soldiers, wounded heroes or traumatized souls. One imagines that because these men and women served in uniform, that they also share a uniform story.

Matthew Halbe: Iraq, Army, SIS ’11

Matthew Halbe, a 2011 alumnus who served in Iraq, acknowledged the importance of Veterans Day but also pointed out the stereotypes of veterans.

“We’re not like all these helpless victims and the same time, we’re not all these selfless heroes who bleed red, white and blue,” Halbe said. “We’re just people that have these unique experiences.”

Halbe served twice in Iraq, the first time in 2005 and again in 2007 when he was stop-lossed.

His experience in Iraq is not unique one, but is an often-untold story. Halbe was a cryptological linguist, primarily writing reports at the base. He said he didn’t face many threats while on duty, but he witnessed the occasional mortar attack and a woman was killed in a mortar attack in a part of the base that he frequently walked through.

“I didn’t have harrowing experiences,” Halbe said. “I had experiences where I was nervous or afraid. I didn’t experience death up close or my friends dying; I didn’t have to kill anybody.”

During his second deployment he applied to AU, even visiting the campus for preview day during a two-week break. For Halbe, college was literally a world away from the base.

“It was a really weird feeling knowing that I was there in this sort of opulent environment and I would have to go back, that was a very odd feeling,” Halbe said.

Once at AU, Halbe said he felt freed from much of the Army’s restrictions, such as its early morning physical training. Still, adjusting to the non-veteran community presented its difficulties.

“When I was in the Army, I developed a lot of negative habits like smoking, cursing, being very, very negative,” Halbe said. “A lot of kids at AU through no fault of their own are very idealistic of the world, and the Army kills a lot of that.”

While Halbe developed his core friendships with other veterans at AU, he said he did make civilian friends too. He also met his wife at AU.

Adam L’Episcipo: Iraq, Army, SIS ’10

At the height of the surge in Iraq and at the end of his teen years, Adam L’Episcipo went to Iraq in 2006 as an infantryman where he performed night raids. Though he didn’t study philosophy in college, he said he went to Iraq for philosophical reasons.

“I felt that, in order to progress in any field, I was yearning for something that would light my fire,” L’Episcipo said. “I wanted to see war from the ground level. War is one of the most extreme experiences you can have. I felt that those experiences really define a person.”

L’Episcipo’s service certainly left an indelible impact on him, but not one that has ever impaired him. When asked if he lost fellow soldiers, he responded yes, followed by a sigh and pause.

“At first you don’t think or process that,” he said. “Anyone who loses anyone they care about, it’s unfortunate that it happened but we all have to continue to live. But these guys will always be with me.”

L’Episcipo said he never suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning from war, despite losing a few of his compatriots.

“I think it’s hard to label things, especially PTSD,” he said. “I think where it can range from stress in general from 10 to 110 percent. I would say, there’s always things that color your life, but I wouldn’t say that any of those things were a hindrance.”

PTSD is just one of the stereotypes that plague veterans, according to L’Episcipo.

“I kinda believe that just labeling someone a veteran is a stereotype in itself. It has turned into something that all vets are in need,” he said. “A lot of people are radically different and respond in different ways.”

To L’Episcipo, the term veteran doesn’t entail suffering or victory, but simply service.

“At least what it means is that you serve your nation, your country. You should keep that self sacrifice as a benchmark for your life.”

Matthew Harrison: Vietnam, Army, Kogod ’71

Matthew Harrison, a retired employee of Sun Trust Bank, came to the Kogod School of Business in 1971 to get his Master’s degree after serving in Vietnam.

At 21, he was commissioned out of West Point and sent to serve as an infantryman. Harrison fought in the Tet Offensive, a major turning point in the war.

In 1971, AU was a liberal college campus, but most students didn’t ostracize Harrison for his service. Instead, they welcomed him and even sympathized with him.

“Occasionally someone would say something, but even if they began saying it they would almost apologize,” Harrison said.

In one rare instance, one student was shocked by Harrison’s participation in the war.

“‘Oh my god, you were over there doing THAT?’ Like she was ready to puke,” Harrison said. “But she came off. That was one casual conversation, but no one ever stood up and denounced [me] in the classroom.”

Amid the chaos of the Vietnam War, Harrison fared well, with the exception of one operation in the Ashau Valley. His troop got cut off and they couldn’t return to the helicopters immediately because of their vulnerable position.

“We prevailed and were able to survive but it wasn’t as much as a controlled environment as we were used to in other environments,” Harrison said.

For Harrison, one stereotype of the Vietnam War was true — He lost many of his fellow soldiers and friends. Though he and L’Episcipo are generations apart, their reactions to their fallen brothers were eerily similar.

“Oh yes. Many. Too many,” Harrison said, after a long pause, of the number of soldiers he knew who died.

“It was traumatic. That’s about the only thing I could say,” he said. “To see it and then realize your own mortality and the possibility of it taking place on a daily basis put a strain on your system.”

But unlike L’Episcipo, Harrison said he probably suffered from PTSD after returning from service.

“You were still trying to digest your own feelings and, while people weren’t openly hostile, they couldn’t sympathize with you because they didn’t know what you were going through,” Harrison said.

His primary circle of friends was also veterans. They hung out together as an informal support group and often drank together.

“I think most of us were kind of wrapped up in ourselves,” he said. “Everybody suffered a little post traumatic stress syndrome from one degree or another.”

Stanley J. Grogran: Korea, Air Force, SOC ’49

Stanley J. Grogan received his bachelor’s degree from the School of Communication in 1949 and went to war soon afterward. He returned to AU in 1954 and earned his master’s from SOC in 1955.

Today, Grogan works as a consultant and travels to India once a year. Though he is no longer active in the military, his experience in national security has made him an expert in the anti-terrorist movement.

Grogan performed 20 night missions and patrols in his all weather fighter squadron in Korea. He has also contributed a story of these combat missions to the books “The Forgotten” and “Voices of the Korean War.”

“I was in Korea for twice as long as I should have been,” Grogan said. “There was a lack of personnel to fill the slot. We had to do double duty. We were understaffed in every way, but we were still able to defeat the Chinese.”

Grogan returned to AU with many other veterans from both World War II and the Korean War, who were able to afford college because of the G.I. Bill.

“At that time, we didn’t have any radicals to speak of,” Grogan said of AU’s campus after the Korean War. “We got along just dandy.”

However, Grogan did receive a strange welcome from his mother. After returning home, he came to the door, proudly dressed in his uniform.

“My mother said ‘Stanley, you smell funny,’” Grogan said.

He quickly realized that, after an eastern diet of mostly fish, his uniform had acquired the smell.

“We had a completely different diet,” Grogan said. “I hadn’t eaten meat in years. Because it was a different lifestyle, we had to acclimate to the locals.”

lgiangreco@theeagleonline.com

This article previously stated that Matthew Halbe saw a woman killed in a mortar attack. He did not see the woman die, but she was killed in an area of the base that Halbe frequently walked through.


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