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Connellsville natives go from students to soldiers, and back

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007

As students at California University of Pennsylvania, Michael Washington and Josh Shallenberger are leading what many might consider typical college lifestyles.

Classes and studying keep them busy, and they admit to setting aside some spare time for socializing.

Four years ago, however, these free-spirited young men were hundreds of miles away from the lifestyle they now enjoy. They traded in their notebooks, course schedules and social events to begin training in Fort Knox, Ky., for an 11-month tour of duty in Iraq.

Sgt. Shallenberger and Spc. Washington were both teenagers when they decided to enlist in the Army National Guard, a move both said they made to pay for a college education.

Washington, 24, said his parents were going through a divorce and his family could not afford to send him to college.

Shallenberger, 22, whose cousin had also enlisted, said he was curious to see what opportunities the military had to offer, and he thought the Army would be a good fit.

"I was a junior in high school, and really didn't have a lot going on in my life, so it seemed like a good idea," Shallenberger said.

That good idea came with risks, which the Connellsville natives said they were made aware of when they enlisted. In March 2004 they were informed of their deployment to Iraq.

"I was overwhelmed at first with a lot of mixed feelings," Shallenberger said. "I mean, you hear about it on the news, and you know it's a possibility, but you never really think it's gonna happen to you."

Washington also admitted to mixed feelings when he received news of his deployment.

"I got a phone call from my sergeant (Scott Sage), and he said, 'Guess what?' At that point, I really didn't know what to think," Washington said.

"I was kind of upset at first, because I knew I would be missing a lot. But nowadays, if you join up, you know you're going somewhere. I figured it was my turn anyway, so I'd just get it out of the way as fast as I could."

First to Kuwait

Shallenberger and Washington began training for their tour of duty in May 2004 and were deployed to Kuwait at the beginning of December. They entered Iraq on Dec. 15, Shallenberger said, where they would be assigned to several peacekeeping missions.

The primary goal of these missions was security, which included inspecting highways for roadside bombs and training the Iraqi police and army.

Washington said his unit also provided security for medical facilities where doctors, nurses and medics treated wounded soldiers and civilians.

"Those of us with more medical experience would be inside helping them," Washington said. "Those were long days."

Like Washington, Shallenberger was primarily involved with security during his tour in Iraq. Ensuring that soldiers were prepared for missions to which they were assigned also was part of his responsibility as a sergeant, he said.

Washington said he appreciates the support his unit received while serving in Iraq. Based on his experience, he believes American involvement is more helpful than harmful.

"We did way more good than bad while I was over there," Washington said. "We did much more rebuilding than fighting."

When President Bush declared an end to major combat, Washington said the conflict turned into a peacekeeping mission, which can often be much harder than combat.

"We're the Army; we kill people. That's what we're trained to do, and we're good at it," he said. "But you just can't be scared and fire at somebody during peacetime. You have to wait."

Purposely harming someone without just cause during a peacekeeping mission can result in harsh consequences for the offender, including jail time, losing rank, or even a dishonorable discharge from the Army.

"We all think terrorists are guys in black hoods," Washington said. "Problem is, everyone over there wears a black hood. You just have to wait on someone to shoot at you, and that's the bad guy."

Lives changed

Shallenberger and Washington said their lives were changed by their experience.

"I actually changed my major because of the military," Shallenberger said. "My lieutenant was an athletic training major, and I got close to him while we were in Iraq. He's the one who got me to where I am now."

Shallenberger, who originally was studying math and computer science, said he certainly doesn't regret changing his mind about his career path.

The oppressive conditions under which the Iraqi people were living made him thankful to live in America.

"I matured while I was over in Iraq. I got to see a different part of life," Shallenberger said, "and I gained an appreciation for our way of life."

Washington said because of his experience in the military, he also has gained an appreciation for American culture. He admitted that prior to his experience in Iraq, he was much more naive.

"I'm a little more worldly now, and definitely not as trusting," he said. "But I feel like I've really done something with my life, something good."

Shallenberger and Washington said they plan to continue their military careers, despite the possibility of redeployment. Washington just signed on for another six years, and he fully expects to return to duty overseas.

"I know I'll probably get deployed at least once again before my six years are up, but not all deployments are bad," Washington said. "When people talk to us, we really like it when people say 'thank you.' It really means a lot to us."

During their tour in Iraq, Shallenberger and Washington said they developed a close, family-like bond with fellow soldiers. Upon their return from Iraq in 2005, the two became roommates at the university for a semester, and they faithfully keep in contact with all of the people from their unit.

Washington is in his junior year as a criminal justice major. He now lives off campus in California with Shallenberger's cousins, Justin and Erin, who served with the duo in Iraq.

Neither of the two soldiers was injured during his tour, although Washington said one of his friends required a partial leg amputation because of injuries suffered during one of their security missions.

Both said they do not regret the experience, and they would gladly do it again.

"My experience showed me you can enjoy life in any situation," Shallenberger said. "I wouldn't be the same person if I hadn't gone."

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