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Counting Vitamins, Counting Sundays

There’s nothing like a six-month deployment to a combat zone to zap things into perspective.

After I had served twenty-three years with the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard as a reservist, my true call of duty finally came. In January 2010, I was given the task of serving 179 days at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, as the Equal Opportunity/Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program manager for Regional Command East.

Initially, I had mixed emotions. I had so many civilian commitments, and I would essentially have to “hit Pause” on those for twenty-six weeks. I had been teaching journalism and public relations at IUP for only three years, so I hadn’t yet earned tenure. I had been elected a township supervisor in Brush Valley in November 2009, and I had only one meeting under my belt. I am a single mother, so my twenty-year-young son, Derek, would be left to take care of the house and my affairs.

On the other hand, I would be deployed from April to October, so the bulk of my deployment fell in the summer; I wouldn’t be missing much teaching at IUP during that time. I would miss six monthly township meetings, but there were two other supervisors able to conduct business without me. And, finally, it was about time to cut that umbilical cord with Derek anyway. I had recently begun to be a helicopter/Velcro parent, since he had decided to follow in my footsteps by joining the military himself—Derek’s a medic in the 171st ARW—and he’s enrolled at IUP (I’m a 1993 alumna of the Journalism Department).

I had served more than half my life in the military, and my deployments to date had taken me to at least a dozen countries and to more than half of the United States, but for only two to ten weeks at a time. I believed it was my turn to do a significant tour of duty in combat. I had a close call in 1990. When Derek was six months old, I was assigned to serve as a public affairs specialist in the Middle East during Desert Storm. A friend of mine who was then single and childless stepped forward and volunteered in my place, so I didn’t have to go. It was my turn to do that for someone else, now that my son was grown.

One week, I was sent to Kabul by helicopter to handle an equal opportunity issue, and I got to stay in General David Petraeus’s suite for five days.

In mid-January, the fun began. I had so much to accomplish before I left. I would have to re-qualify on both the M-16 (rifle) and the M-9 (pistol). I would have to get a physical and dental exam and make sure my shots were up to date; this included anthrax and smallpox vaccines. I would have to write my will and establish a power of attorney. I would have to study the Afghan culture and take counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and combat first-aid training. The list seemed endless, and I had only two-and-a-half months to accomplish it all—while I was teaching four courses during the Spring 2010 semester.

In February, it was time to take a break from the madness and celebrate Derek’s twentieth birthday. I wanted to “go big” and make it really special. We got tickets to the Olympics and flew to Vancouver for the weekend to attend the preliminary-round ice hockey contest between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. won, so it was totally worth it.

In March, while most IUP faculty members and students were on spring break, I was in “New Jersey-Stan” participating in a grueling, two-week, combat skills course. There, I learned to army crawl in the snow in full battle rattle; to spot roadside, improvised explosive devices; to drive a Humvee and respond to (simulated but realistic) attacks in a convoy; to move tactically as part of a five-man team, kicking in doors and assuming tactical positions (with paintball guns—I got shot in the bicep); to navigate through the wilderness, shooting azimuths; to escape from an overturned Humvee; and to acquire various other survival skills that most forty-one-year-old females would do anything to avoid or at least would ask, “You want me to do WHAT?!”

When I returned from New Jersey, I tried desperately to spend time with family and friends. My students and colleagues hosted a “Come Back Soon” party for me in our department. They had all pitched in to buy me a Kindle, two hundred dollars-worth of downloads, a cake that looked like the Cake Boss baked it (“Michele, Our Hero” was written on it), and they roasted me. It was hilarious. I cried both happy and sad tears all day.

I hosted Easter at my house so I could spend my final days with my family before deployment. We had unseasonably warm weather and partied at Brush Valley Park. It was fantastic. But, before I knew it, it was April 5, and it was time to leave.

It took me six days to get there. I flew from Pittsburgh to El Paso, to Dallas, to Germany, to Kuwait, to Afghanistan. I will never forget climbing out the back of the C-17 with all my gear and my M-16 in hand. The reality of the situation finally struck me in the face, as did the dust and the heat on the flight line.

On deployment, Papakie at the wheel of an M-ATV

On deployment, Papakie at the wheel of an M-ATV

During my deployment, as a victim advocate/program manager, I handled twenty sexual assault cases and countless equal-opportunity issues. One of our sexual assault victims attempted suicide. I spent hours waiting out attacks in bunkers and buildings. I survived an earthquake. It was an oppressive hundred degrees or more almost every day. During my trips to our airfield’s hospital, I saw our casualties of war and wounded Afghan men, women, and children. Regardless of what you think about the politics of this war, the bottom line is that it’s ultimately about people, and I was proud to be part of the effort.

Overall, my job was depressing and stressful. I needed to find ways to relax in a combat zone. I read seventeen books on my Kindle. I went to the gym regularly, and although I’m not a runner, I set a goal of running a 5K. By the end of my deployment, I had run four 5Ks. I kept in touch with my students, family, and friends via Facebook and Skype. I often wondered how my father survived Vietnam and my grandfather survived World War II without being in touch regularly with their support systems.

My department chairman, Randy Jesick, invited me to give the department’s commencement address, so I taped one and mailed it home. I was so honored to do that. We had about thirty students graduating in May, and it was breaking my heart that I couldn’t be there with them and their families on such a special day. Ultimately, I was there—sort of. My commencement address is on YouTube.

Professor Papakie’s 2010 Journalism Department commencement address, taped in Afghanistan.

I counted down the days to my homecoming with vitamins and Sundays. I counted out 179 multivitamins and took one a day. It was exciting to see that jar finally empty! I also reconnected spiritually. I attended church every Sunday, for twenty-six weeks, and I volunteered as a Eucharistic minister, lector, and altar server. One week, I was sent to Kabul by helicopter to handle an equal-opportunity issue, and I got to stay in General David Petraeus’s suite for five days. (That was a very nice break from the Conex shipping container in which I resided with a roommate at Bagram.) During that week in Kabul, I attended church and served as a Eucharistic minister there as well. On a visit to the U.S. Embassy, I met newly elected Congressman Mark Critz ’87, a fellow elected official from Pennsylvania, representing the Twelfth Congressional District.

About halfway through my deployment, I decided I still needed something productive to do to pass the time. I applied to teach for the University of Maryland’s University College. They have satellite “campuses” all over the world. I taught an eight-week, public speaking course and a one-week, résumé-writing course. I was finally in my comfort zone. I had fourteen students in my public speaking course and thirteen in my résumé-writing course.

We met in a makeshift classroom built of plywood on the flight line. It was loud, hot, and dimly lit, and mice visited frequently. It was understood that when jets took off, and we couldn’t hear ourselves think, the presenter would just pause as though nothing had happened and continue when the noise subsided. If we were under attack, the plan was to grab our gear, head to a bunker, and return to the classroom when we received the “all clear.” That happened only once.

Michele Papakie in an ATV

Finally, my deployment came to a close, and it was time to go home. I was out of vitamins and out of Sundays. Ironically, this coincided with IUP’s Homecoming Weekend. It took me five days to get home. I flew from Bagram to Bulgaria, to Kyrgyzstan, to Baltimore. I had to spend the night in Baltimore, and I was so tempted just to rent a car and drive home to Pittsburgh. Instead, I spent the evening eating crab cakes, compliments of room service, soaking in a hot, bubbly bath, and watching an NCIS marathon on television. I needed some down time before my friends and family would accost me at my gate at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

As I headed back to the classroom at IUP for the Spring 2011 semester after my life-changing adventure, I realized that not even a noisy heater in a classroom, the 103 steps to the fourth floor of Davis Hall, digging my car out of a snowy parking lot, or grading a thousand papers (without being shot at) are really any big deal. Plus, I had plenty of new stories to share with my students.

Michele Papakie ’93 is an associate professor at IUP and a lieutenant colonel in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.