As America celebrates Veterans Day, the dedication and sacrifice of the armed forces is called to the minds and hearts of many. The holiday commemorates men and women who have risked their lives for the lives of their fellow Americans.
For most Drake students, the realities of war seem distant and difficult to understand. Only when those who are close to us are called to duty can we truly know the sacrifice given from the men and women behind the war.
On Oct. 20, military officials announced that around 3,500 Iowa National Guard soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan in the fall of 2010. The deployment of the entire 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division will not only affect the families, loved ones and employers of those men and women, but it will also affect the Drake community.
Three Drake seniors – cadets Patrick Hendrickson, Zach Polka and Joel Sage – were notified that they would join 48,000 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan. They were then faced with the daunting task of telling their parents, wives and children of their call to duty.
The Times-Delphic spoke to all three men and their families to better understand the faces underneath the helmets.
War is not an unfamiliar experience for senior biology major Patrick Hendrickson. At 19 years old, he was deployed to Iraq as a combat medic, enduring experiences that forced him to grow up fast.
Now, just seven years later, he faces his second tour of duty in the Middle East, serving as an infantry leader with 30 men under his command.
When fellow Drake student Joel Sage notified Hendrickson that their brigade was called up, he said he understood that this was real and he had become mentally prepared for it.
“I felt I had enough time off,” he said. “After a while you feel a sense of guilt … like it’s time for me to step up again.”
In January, 2003, his unit was mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was deployed in March and served for a year and a half as a medic. He was stationed in Mosul, Iraq, for four months and then sent to Abu Ghraib military prison to treat soldiers and prisoners.
In Afghanistan, he will be an infantry platoon leader. He said the responsibility has definitely gone up, as he will go out on patrol with his 30 men and women.
“Those are the best kind of leaders,” he said. “The ones who go out there and face the elements with your men.”
Hendrickson said the biggest difference between his first deployment and this one is his mindset. In 2003, he said he would volunteer to go on the dangerous missions. But now, as a husband and father of two, he has other priorities.
“There were a lot of events that happened in Iraq, that when I went back home, I wasn’t a regular 20-year-old kid,” he said. “There were a lot of events that made me grow up. I can’t really explain it. I saw the world in a different light than most 20-year-olds do.”
When he fights in Afghanistan, he said his motivation will derive from his own family and helping other families in the Middle East.
“You see these kids, and you see the things they have to deal with,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine living in those conditions. I really look forward to life back home. When you’re there living it, you really see the difference you’re making.”
When he got back to Iowa in 2004, he said it took him a while to feel at home again.
He met his wife, Jessica, when he got back from serving in Iraq. They now have two children – 2-year-old Eva and six-week-old Jacob. Life as a father and student is difficult, Hendrickson said.
“I tell you what, it keeps me busy,” he said. “There’s always something for me to do.”
He said he loves being a father, as his children are the pride of his life.
“They are my best friends,” he said. “My daughter is at the perfect age. When I come home, it’s like I have a fan club. I love nothing more than to sit and play with her and watch her learn.”
When he has to say goodbye, he said it will be the hardest thing he’ll ever do.
“Between her and my wife, those two will be the hardest saying goodbye to,” he said. “Just like before, it was the hardest thing saying goodbye to Mom. And it will still be hard saying goodbye to Mom and Dad.”
Hendrickson will also miss his time at Drake. He said professors have been very understanding as he has balanced different roles in his life.
“I am appreciative of every professor here at Drake,” he said. “Being a father and soldier at the same time, there are a lot of things that are asked of me, and all of the professors have been really good about being flexible with me.”
Following his time in Afghanistan, Hendrickson said he will study for the MCATs and pursue a medical degree, so he can become a civilian doctor.
The soldiers deployed overseas are not just serving in the infantry, but fill other jobs necessary for the war effort. Senior Zach Polka – a news/internet and broadcast news double major – is in the 3654 Maintenance Company, that focuses on repairing damaged vehicles from the front line.
When he received notification that his company was called up, he said one thought crossed his mind, “Am I going to finish school on time?” Along with his degree, Polka also has to graduate from officer training. Once he’s finished with his training, he will gain the rank of second lieutenant.
“I’m going to school to not only get a degree, but also learn the roles and responsibilities of an officer,” he said. “So, an opportunity like this straight out of the barrel is great because I can not only serve my country, but also prove to myself that I have what it takes to lead other men and women.”
Although Polka’s job is not technically on the front line, he said he still fears for his safety in the dangerous Afghan terrain.
“With the war the way it is, there is no front line,” he said. “Anywhere you look, you could be penetrated by the enemy.”
He said that although he might work on machinery, when he’s under fire, his gun will be his primary tool.
“No matter what your specific job is in the military, everybody, when it comes down to it, is a front-line soldier,” he said. “The entire time you’re over there, your main equipment is a water canteen and a rifle. The tools you use for your job is just extra.”
Polka has been in the Army National Guard for six years, serving 10 months at Camp Roberts in California. Upon returning to Iowa, he earned an Associate’s degree in Fine Arts from DMACC.
Telling his fiancé of his deployment was a challenge for Polka. He came home after a drill weekend, asked her how her day was and then told her to sit down. Knowing that what he was going to say involved the military, she refused to sit. Then, he told her.
“Are you serious?” she said. “We’re going to have to get married.”
Misty Waltz and Polka have been together for five years. Since they are both full-time students, their income poses obstacles to getting married. Polka said that, with their tax return next year, they should be in good shape to make their legal union a reality.
Waltz found it difficult to describe what life will be like when Polka leaves next fall. She said he mows the lawn, pays the bills, cleans dishes and takes care of their 3-year-old daughter, Kiley. When he leaves, she could only describe it as though somebody in her family were dying.
“You have so much to do and so little time,” she said. “You no longer are going to have that person there 24/7 when you need them. It’s hard.”
She said Polka is great with their daughter, adopting a hands-on approach in her life. Telling their daughter will be the toughest part of this process. He said that, when the time is right, he and his fiancé will sit her down and say, “Daddy’s going to leave, but he’ll be back soon.”
Although Waltz is sad to see him go, she is proud of Polka, saying he is doing what is necessary for his country.
“He’s fighting for our freedoms and fighting for what we have,” she said. “And in order for us to keep that,” pausing as she started crying once more, “people have to do some work.”
After Afghanistan, Polka plans on finishing his 20 years of military service by working in the Public Affairs Detachment at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa.
Already having served four years at Arlington National Cemetery, economics major Joel Sage said he is ready to deploy to Afghanistan.
He said he started hearing rumors about the deployment over a year ago, but was told that the decision would come in August. As August and September came and went, all Sage could do was wait. When it was officially announced, Sage was commissioned to tell the 40 men under his command they would, in fact, be deployed to the front line in one year.
Sage will finish school in December, giving him ample time to get his affairs in order and complete his training.
As an infantry platoon leader of the 1st Battalion of the 168th Infantry Regiment, Sage will work closely with the Afghan National Army and lead his men on missions. He will also lead medical professionals, especially dentists, to places where their services are needed most and provide security for engineering teams.
Previously working on Iowa flood relief in 2008 and the 2009 presidential inauguration, he said this is a huge responsibility. The closer the date gets, the more he realizes the work ahead of him.
“I’m not excited to go; I’m not excited to leave my family,” he said. “I’m glad to have the opportunity to serve, but it’s not like I’m overjoyed.”
In 2003, while attending Iowa State University, Sage made a deal with his roommate that if the U.S. went to war against Iraq, they would enlist. When the time came, he enlisted and was sent to Virginia.
After he finished his active duty service, he said he still hadn’t fulfilled his personal goals of service. He joined the National Guard so he could finish his degree at Drake University, knowing that he would eventually be called back to active duty.
“We knew that it wasn’t a likelihood, but more or less guaranteed,” he said. “It was just a matter of time.”
Sage has several family members who have served in the armed forces, including his twin brother, who served in the Marines. He said that this history of service inspires him to fight for his country.
“I felt fortunate to live here, and since I was able to enlist at that time, it was something I could do to serve my country,” he said.
Sage has his reasons for serving in the military, and said that although his wife may be unhappy about the deployment, she is familiar with his driven nature.
“I don’t think she understands the way I feel about it, but I think she understands,” he said.
Sage also has an older brother who served two tours of duty in Iraq and was hit by a roadside bomb. The explosion left his brother shaken, and left questions on Sage’s mind. He said, however, with 40 men under his command, he can’t let those thoughts cloud his focus.
“Honestly, I think more about my guys,” he said. “I always know that death is a possibility, but I never think about it personally.”
Jessica said she is prepared for tasks around the house, but emotionally, she’ll be caught off guard.
“God hasn’t given us anything that we can’t handle,” she said. “There are lots of other families that do this multiple times, and we’re just one of them.”
Jessica worries about their 3-year-old son, Bradley, the most, since Joel is very close to him. She said he is an amazing father.
“With being in the army, working and being in school, he hardly has any time,” she said. “But what time he has, he’s right there playing with his son. He’s really quick to give him lots of encouragement and attention. He’s great.”
Joel went to Washington, D.C., over the summer for training, and Bradley was shaken up by his father’s departure.
“He cried,” she said. “Every once in a while, he would cry for (Joel) and say he missed him and wanted him. I’m anticipating it’s going to be like that for a while.”
Jessica said Joel is dedicated in every role of his life.
After this tour in Afghanistan, he has eight years of service left.
In a place where worries may range from what party to attend this weekend or what grade you’ll receive on the next economics test, it’s hard to understand how to cope in a world 7,000 miles away. With the daunting feeling that can accompany realizing your life can end at any second, what sane person would feel comfort in this deployment? These three men don’t want to be referred to as heroes or someone special. To them, this is their job – a duty to their country.
As 3,500 of our fellow Iowans prepare to leave us next year, it’s important that we hear their stories. Hendrickson, Polka and Sage are students who worry about their grades like anyone else does. But, in one short year, their priorities will shift, and the thought of coming home to those people who love them unconditionally will be inspiration enough to survive much greater threats.