Not even war stops
march to degree

  AUGUST 2003  


"One day I’m in my dorm having fun with all my friends. Next thing I know, I’m at Camp Pendleton in camouflage uniform."

Ignacio Martinez attends to preparations and last minute details for his return to the University of Massachusetts and the start of the fall semester.

The Amherst campus is long way from his native Sylmar and the Mission College campus, where Martinez was a student from 2001-02 and again this summer. But for Martinez, who spent part of the spring fighting in the war in Iraq, Massachusetts is a short road trip.

The 24-year-old college junior has been all over the world, including Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Madagascar, Yemen and Kuwait, as a member of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. His many months at sea led him to develop a love for reading that he had never experienced as a self-described "below average" student at San Fernando High School.

"Two weeks at sea is like two months on land," he said. "It’s a long time. But the (Navy) ships have libraries. I started reading everything."

Martinez estimates that he read well over 100 books on the long expeditions at sea during his four-year tour. For that, he took friendly heat from his fellow marines, who preferred to break the tedium by playing cards or video games.

"So many of my buddies were bored or homesick on the ship," he recalled. "They’d ask me how I could sit there and read so much. I’d tell them, ‘I’m not even here right now; I’m not with you guys. I’m in another place,’ wherever the book was."

It was logical that Martinez’s love of reading would lead him to college. When his active tour ended in 2001, he enrolled at Mission College. Soon, he had enough units to transfer to the University of Massachusetts, harboring hopes that some day he might be able to write like some of his favorite authors. Though Amherst is about as different from Sylmar as you can get, Martinez settled in, enjoyed his classes, made new friends, and attended conferences on the East Coast.

Then came the orders. The orders recalling him to active duty just before the start of the war with Iraq.

"One day I’m in my dorm having fun with all my friends," he recalled. "Next thing I know, I’m at Camp Pendleton in camouflage uniform."

Martinez thought he had seen the last of the Middle East when his unit was dispatched to Yemen in October 2000, shortly after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. (They provided security for the FBI agents who investigated the terrorist attack.) But while in the region, Martinez and his fellow marines underwent desert combat training in Kuwait – experience that made him too valuable to ignore when war preparations began in earnest.

Martinez was shipped to Kuwait and a convoy ride later, found himself in southern Iraq.

"At least I knew what to expect," he said. "My buddies were shocked at the heat – the amount of water you have to drink to stay hydrated. If you stand on the tarmac too long, your boots melt into the asphalt."

In Iraq, Martinez performed security work, guard patrol, humanitarian assistance, and treated the injured – until he himself suffered a gunshot wound. He prefers not to give details, saying only that it was non-life-threatening, put him in the hospital for a week, and ended his active duty in Iraq. Soon, he was back stateside and lobbying his professors to let him complete the classes that were interrupted by war. He convinced two and managed to save six units.

Now, he looks forward to the fall semester and a resumption of the academic life. He thanks the marines for helping him find his way in life after a troubled adolescence. But he is no longer Marine Sgt. Martinez. He’s a college junior, trying to decide on a major and a career path. And while those decisions are important, they don’t stress out this veteran as much as they do other students. After what he’s seen and done – after discovering a love for reading and education and then being pulled away to war, Martinez feels he’s back where he wants to be, without a day to waste.

"I just want to keep moving, keep learning," he said. "Maybe I’ll meet that professor or take that class that answers everything."

Or, read a book that changes his life – again.

– BY EDUARDO PARDO  /  Photos: Lydia Chung