USU student's 'ride to college' through military has twists, turns
By Ellie Riggs
Heavy breathing echoes in his head. The small windowless cement block
room is empty, except for the six privates accompanying him on this
mission. The gas masks create an alien-faced audience in the cubicle.
Non-lethal noxious gas makes the air thick, promising stomach cramps,
vomiting, convulsions, and any number of physical reactions, except
The sergeant orders the soldiers, at attention, to remove their masks,
their protection from the filthy air.
To his right his best friend crumples to the ground. To his left a soldier
convulses and then vomits onto the cool cement floor. All around the
room men are moaning and writhing in agony.
Alone, still erect, grimacing against the pain the gas is causing his
body, Private Eric Aston stubbornly stands at attention. The masked
sergeant approaches Aston, "Private, You're John Freakin' Wayne."
That's how Sergeant Eric Aston recalls his basic training the summer
He was put through rigorous physical training; his mental abilities
were tested and strengthened throughout the three-month period as well.
All so he could have funding to attend his classes at Utah State University.
In March 2000 Sergeant Eric Aston joined the Idaho National Guard like
so many university students do.
Most parents are more concerned than ever about tuition costs for their
college-age children. There are some 55,000 students who are covering
all or most of their tuition by joining the Reserve Officer Training
Corps, ROTC, on hundreds of college campuses across the nation, according
to Knight Ridder Newspapers. Added on top of that are the thousands
of students getting financial aid to attend college by joining the National
Guard and Reserves.
Aston, a mechanical engineering major, used the military as his ride
to college, so he could spend more time building his school projects,
like the mini-Baja car, he said.
"I never really expected to be activated when I signed up, that
was the last thing on my mind," Aston said. "I just wanted
to work on the car, and have a good time at school."
He was required to train the first weekend of every month and two weeks
out of his summer with his unit, leaving he rest of the time for himself.
"It created so much time for me to work on school stuff,"
he said. "I never had to get another job to pay for school."
January 2003 Aston's life changed.
Aston was in Hawaii with two of his friends right after Christmas, he
said. One of their senior officers found out their cell phone number,
called them in Honolulu, and told them they were being activated.
Utah has the most activations in the country right now, said Lt. Col.
"After the Sept. 11 attacks, and then the stuff with Iraq, part
of me welcomed the possibility of being activated, the chance to make
restitution," Aston said.
Aston, along with his unit, reported to Preston, Idaho Jan. 30 to begin
training to become military police on Hill Air Force Base in Clearfield,
Utah. Classes were cancelled, family told and friends alerted. These
men were being moved, not very far, but yet indeed into a whole new
"It is crazy, I am so close to universities yet I cannot go to
class. There is such a conflict in me sometimes," Aston said. "I
know my duty to my country, and will always perform my responsibilities;
I just also want to finish school."
Aston's time is filled with military exercises, military preparation
and duties 12 hours a day.
"I wake up at 3:30 a.m. almost every morning, strap into my bullet
proof vest, get into my BDUs, polish my boots until they shine, shave
immaculately, slip that beret on my head and walk out the door. I report
for duty at 4 a.m. at which point I check out my weapon M16-A2 rifle,
ammunition, and radio. At 4:30 a.m. guard-mount begins, which is a meeting
with all the soldiers from the shift. In guard-mount, we receive our
post assignments, where we're working.
"The chief also passes out any relevant information, alerts and
"After guard-mount, we are released to post. Usually, my post consists
of controlling entry at a base gate. I check ID cards as people enter
the base. If they have no valid ID or pass, they have to turn around.
After 12 grueling hours of this, the "relief" comes out to
post, and we return to the station. We turn in our weapons and go home
for the night. Just in time to go to eat and go to bed," Aston
On top of that he is required to physically train after his gate duty,
and still give two of his days of leave a month to National Guard training.
"This is not what I expected," Aston said. "I get to
tell my future kids that yeah, I was in the war; I was guarding a gate
in Utah at Hill Air Force Base."
Aston is able to laugh it off most of the time. His classmates are all
graduating spring 2004, and that frustrates him, that he is now so behind.
Aston stays devoted to school even now. He will leave the HAF base after
his shift at 5 p.m. drive the 45 minutes to the University of Utah,
where he transferred his credits. He will design, machine, invent or
do anything on his current project, the formula one car, at the U of
U for maybe an hour or two, drive back to base and go to sleep so he
can wake up early the next morning, he said.
"I just have to do something with my hands, it keeps me sane, and
happy," Aston said. "My team in my major are all there at
the shop, I still want to be involved, and they need my help too, so
I keep going as much as I can."
Aston said that all of this National Guard stuff was to help with school.
"This activation makes it really hard to want to go back to school
at all," he said. "It is not easy giving up your life, especially
when you can see it over the mountains, on the other side.
Aston, who was chosen soldier of the year 2001, is an expert marksman
and became a sergeant the summer of 2003.
"I do love my country, and I know that I am needed where I am.
I have a duty to perform, and I would never not give my all and my best
to this country," said Aston.
Aston has just been alerted that he will either continue at HAF Base
another year, or be sent to the desert for 18 months.
USU senior Lyle Marley, a senior airman in the 19th Combat Logistics
Support Squadron Air Force Reserves in the military has another story,
he said, "I just joined the Air Force because I would never have
been able to go to college otherwise."
As college education tuition increases, students have been forced to
find alternative ways to support themselves through their schooling.
For most, the military was an undeniable benefit, helping their lives
profoundly. Giving them a free way to knowledge, as well as teaching
leadership, camaraderie and skills that can be used in the future workplace.
"It has taught me a lot about stepping up. It is kind of cool when
you are out there in the world, doing something, and it actually means
something to somebody that you've never met before," Marley said.
Marley, coming from a low-income family, would have missed out on the
opportunities the Air Force Reserves have given him.
He admits that his school and military responsibilities can get in the
way of each other. He has missed weeks of school because his training
overlapped the new semester year at USU, numerous times. In fact this
year he missed the first five days of classes due to the fact he was
training in South Korea.
Marley said that the benefits of being in the Air Force do outweigh
the disadvantages. You get to belong someplace, he said.
Marley said, "I'm just proud of myself, because I get to kick back.
I can sit back with a beer if I want, I am at school, and I haven't
had to have a job in three years."