Saturday, November 11, 2006
Virginia Tech senior Chris Mitrevski is among a growing number of veterans still in college
Just 22 years old, Mitrevski says, 'We owe them so much'
Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times
BLACKSBURG -- Chris Mitrevski doesn't remember much about what his mother said to him when he called her from his Virginia Tech dorm room in January 2003.
But he remembers the silence on the other end of the line.
The prolonged pause followed the then-freshman's announcement that he was going to Iraq to serve with the Army's 49th Quartermasters group.
"I think it was just a few moments of disbelief, trying to absorb what I'd just said," he said.
Mitrevski, a member of Tech's Corps of Cadets, was in the Army Reserves at the time. He enlisted during high school and went through basic training after he graduated. One week into his second semester of college he was called to duty.
Now a senior and still a member of the Corps of Cadets, Mitrevski is one of a growing number of young veterans seeing combat before seeing their names written on a college diploma.
Col. Richard "Rock" Roszak, alumni director of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and a 1971 Tech graduate, said that while student veterans don't receive any special treatment, it's impossible not to notice the difference between them and other students.
"We recognize that these folks are more mature than your average entering high school student," he said. "When someone comes in who's already had a major life experience like that, it does us good."
While the phone call Mitrevski received telling him to report for duty on that Friday afternoon took him by surprise, he had known there was a possibility he'd be going to war since September 2001, six months after he joined the reserves. He'd discussed it with his mother then -- when she was a bit more talkative.
"We sort of knew what was going on, and we knew that it was a possibility," he said.
After three months of training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, Mitrevski's company went to Kuwait in April 2003. He spent the next year in Kuwait and Iraq, driving fuel trucks around southern Iraq and Baghdad.
Mitrevski remembers that he and his fellow soldiers -- many also college students -- had a fear of the unknown when they arrived. But none of their convoys was attacked during their first three or four months.
"Looking back, we really didn't have a whole lot to be afraid of because the whole rest of the Army had already cleared the way for us," he said.
It wasn't until that fear had subsided that they experienced their first attack.
"Then it wasn't really fear, it was more disbelief," he said. "It was, 'Wow, there's really people who are shooting at us? Why are they shooting at us?' "
Mitrevski said only one person in his unit died and that was in a vehicle accident not caused by an ambush. In October 2003, shortly after that death, he and his fellow soldiers found out that their tour was going to be extended. They'd had hopes of being home for the holidays.
That was the low point of his tour of duty. But while he admits it may sound strange, Mitrevski said he enjoyed his time in Iraq. The soldiers bonded quickly, having fun the way any group of young people might in a similar situation. They bought a bicycle that they performed stunts on and built a mini pool by digging a hole in the ground. It even had an improvised diving board. But the pool didn't last long.
"Somebody important showed up and was like, 'You guys can't do that. You have to tear this thing down,' " Mitrevski said.
The transition back to being a student in the fall of 2004 wasn't difficult, Mitrevski said. It helped that he was in the Corps of Cadets, where at least four or five other students have seen combat. But other than bumping his graduation plans back a year, he didn't have much trouble readjusting.
While there's a chance Mitrevski could be called up again before he graduates, he said it's unlikely.
Now in the Virginia National Guard, Mitrevski is planning for a career as an officer in the Army, even though that might mean seeing combat again.
"I don't really want to go and seek out danger, but it is something that I sort of want to be a part of again," he said. "Some people look up to firemen, some people look up to policemen, for me, I've always just looked up to soldiers."
Roszak, who served for 27 years in the Air Force before retiring, said the fact that many cadets know they'll be seeing combat after they graduate hasn't changed the atmosphere of the corps, but it has focused their mind-set.
The corps brings in five or six speakers a semester. Since 2004, those speakers have regularly included young alumni who have been in combat. They always draw the most interest from the cadets.
Roszak said he's impressed by the fact that many of these recent graduates have already seen more action than he did during his entire career.
"We owe them so much," he said. "It's such a different world now, my hat's just off to them."