CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Sept. 19, 2003 – Freshman Robert McClellan of Southport, Ind., was among the thousands of college students who packed up and headed for Florida last spring break, but unlike most of them, he never made it there.
A computer science major at Southeast Missouri State University and a sergeant E5 in the Army National Guard, he was called to active duty while driving down I-55, en route to one of America’s premier spring break hotspots.
“I was about to Memphis when I got the call on my cell phone,” McClellan said. “It was an all-expense paid spring break trip to the Army.”
McClellan is one of more than a dozen Southeast students who serve in a branch of the National Guard and were called to active duty last spring. A handful of that group has returned and is enrolled in classes at the University this fall.
Imagining he might end up somewhere in the Middle East, McClellan in fact was sent to Fort Riley, Kan., where he was stationed from March until July. Although he is back at Southeast, he is aware that another military activation could come at any moment.
“I’m actually expecting another call in the near future because the people over there need to be rotated out,” he said. “When that happens, I’ll be ready to go. Just give me enough time to pack my stuff.”
The scramble of packing up stuff is only part of what students who are called to active duty must go through before making their hasty departure. They must also leave coursework unfinished.
V.A. representative Debbie Howie said that almost all of the students called to active duty last semester chose to withdraw from classes altogether.
“It was their choice to work with their professors and take incompletes, or to withdraw from the semester completely,” Howie said, “but that was completely up to them.” Howie said that the students’ orders were given to student financial services, and that the students were refunded and back-paid to compensate for classes and payments, and that the months they were away on active duty do not count against their educational benefits.
Dr. Gerald McDougall, dean of the college of business, said that the university community rallies in support of its military students.
“Across campus, all of the offices try to work with the students to minimize the negative impact that might come from this,” McDougall said. “We attempt in every way to accommodate the students and make this change as easy as possible.”
But the change was not always easy. Senior airman Chris Zahner of Jeffersontown, Ky., a math education major and a member of the Air National Guard, had been at Southeast only for a short time before being called to active duty and deployed to the Middle East last spring.
“I was on duty for five years [in the Air Force], then I was discharged,” said Zahner. “I finally got to go to school, and in the middle of my first full semester, I got activated.” Describing his overall experience in the Middle East as “a paycheck,” Zahner who was activated for 160 days, found the war in Iraq to be disruptive to his academic pursuits. “I’m taking a lot of the same classes I took last semester,” he said.
Navy reservist Darrell Davidson, a senior from Cape Girardeau, had to put on hold seeing his family and working on his business degree at Southeast when he was sent to Guam from February to July, but has managed to see the plus-side of his situation.
“Obviously, I had to spend time away from my family, but it wasn’t for too long, and it was good pay,” he said. Overall, it was a positive experience.”
A member of the construction battalion known as the “Fighting Seabees,” Davidson was activated to do construction work for the units already stationed there. He was given 48 hours to pack up and leave. “Working for the Navy is a full-time job,” he said. “I was going to school full time, so I just had to drop all my classes.”
Although inconvenienced by his orders, Davidson gained significant experience related to his field and maintains a good attitude.
“Some guys in my unit didn’t really like it too much,” Davidson said, “but it all depends on the individual.”
As evidence that a call to active duty can happen not only suddenly, but repeatedly, last spring marked Southeast senior and Army National Guard specialist Jeffrey Dement’s second deployment.
A double major in biology and outdoor recreation, Dement, of Ellington, Mo., was activated last January and spent the following five months in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. His time there was spent training and honing tactical and soldier skills.
Unsurprised at his activation, Dement left Southeast at the beginning of the semester. He said it was a good time to be called up. “I hadn’t really started classes yet,” Dement said.
Dement, a junior this fall at Southeast, said he volunteered to go so that someone who has a family wouldn’t have to, but according to him, being sent away at a moment’s notice also comes with the territory of serving in a branch of the military. “When you sign up, that’s always a possibility,” he said. “You just deal with it and quit whining.”