NIU students reflect on service in Gulf

By Mark McGowan

Many people think of college as something other than the “real world.” It’s a resting stop between high school and the rest of your life. It’s the last of the carefree years.

Sometimes, though, the “real world” rudely interrupts the sphere of college. Students withdraw. It might be money. It might be bad grades. Last year, it might have been war.

At least 35 NIU students left school last year to serve their country in Operation Desert Storm. Some were well into their education. Others had just started.

For Darryl Jones, 20, a freshman Spanish literature major, school only had begun before he was on a plane to Saudi Arabia. Jones, a member of the Army Reserve since February 1989 and, at that time, a newly-elected Student Association senator, left school Oct. 15, 1990.

“I thought my life was over,” he said. “I’d just got into college. My first reaction was what my parents would think. I was scared to death. I’d never thought I’d be in war.”

Jones, a member of a postal unit, departed the United States on Halloween of last year. Once in Saudi Arabia, his company delivered the mail for the 18th Airborne Corps. Jones dealt mostly with the 1st Cavalry, which was in the rear.

“I never saw the action,” Jones said. “Tiger Brigade was fighting.”

However, one of the last places the unit moved to was near a small town where debris from a Scud missile leveled a few buildings.

Jones said his involvement in the war brought the concept closer to home for his friends. His friends asked him “Why would they send someone out just to fight for oil,” he said.

They never thought war was realistic. When (they knew) it was just average Joe Blows like myself, it brought it down to a level they could relate to.”

His family wasn’t worried for his life because they knew he was levelheaded, he said. Ironically, Jones points out, he was more worried about what they would think of him being in war.

My family didn’t want me to worry about family conflicts,” he said.

Jones came home in April 1991, landing in Milwaukee. He spent two weeks at Fort Sheridan before he was deactivated April 28. He returned to school in the fall and quickly got re-involved in the activities he left behind.

Although he didn’t run again for the SA, he participates in NIU’s chapter of the NAACP, the Black Student Caucus in Stevenson Towers North, and the debate team.

For NIU junior Eric Stopka, a 23-year-old accounting major, things were different and far shorter. Stopka, a member of the Air National Guard, left school Dec. 7, 1990, after scrambling to complete his final exams early.

Stopka thought he would be gone only 15 days. His unit had been sending troops to Saudi Arabia on a two-week rotational basis since Aug. 5, only three days after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Once in the desert, though, his unit was activated entirely. Stopka returned home briefly to help with a complete mobilization of the unit and went back to the Gulf Jan. 3.

“I knew we wouldn’t be near any action,” Stopka said. “I wasn’t scared of dying. I was concerned with how long would we be there and where were we going.”

He said he worried at times he and his unit might be forgotten because of the enormous operation of Desert Storm, but found good support from his girlfriend and family.

“Everyone told me ‘be careful’ and ‘good luck,'” he said. “My family was supportive. My girlfriend was great. She wrote every day to keep me in touch with home. She was upset, but she

pulled through.”

Stopka said the best experience he had was returning home the second time. The plane he was on did a fly-by near its landing point at O’Hare Airport where “there was a huge crowd waiting,” he said. “It was the best feeling in the world.”

Although his stint with the Guard is over in July 1993, Stopka said he hopes there are no more wars, but isn’t second-guessing anyone. On Aug. 2, 1990, “I was one of the first to say we wouldn’t go” to war, he said.

Jones and Stopka were only two reservists among 35 honored last year by NIU. Also honored were Wayne Beyer, Greg Bliss, Jeff Buchholtz, Eddie Cameron, Sung Chung, Mark Cox, Dale Dortch, Christine Ervin, Lauren Evans, Frank Ferraro, Jon Foster, Al Hadley, Phil Heaton, James Kemp, Bill Kierse, Steven Light, George Logan and Mark Magajna.

Also included were Kevin McGowan, Mike Medema, Roland Perez, Sunny Reed, Ken Ross, Rod Schick, Rhonda Somsky, Cathy Stephens, Matt Stern, Michael Stewart, Paul Stratton, Mike Stump, Kurt Taylor, Adam Varda and Tracy Wright.