While some college students worried about studying for finals, Neil Melton was watching out for roadside bombs.
Melton, 24, graduates this weekend from Kansas University after a college career interrupted by more than a year spent serving in Kuwait and Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve.
"Nobody in my unit was killed, which is kind of a shock because we're a pretty large unit, and we drove a lot of miles through some pretty dangerous places," said Melton, a member of the Gardner-based 129th Transportation Company.
Since fall 2001, 50 students have notified the KU registrar's office that they had to withdraw from school because of military service. That number may not reflect all students who have left because not all notify the school, KU officials said.
Melton went to high school in Leavenworth and decided early in his senior year that he would join the Reserve, in part because it would pay for his college tuition and in part because the military is a family tradition: Both his father and grandfather were military officers.
Training on Sept. 11
Instead of starting at KU during the fall after his high school graduation in 2001, Melton underwent basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He was there during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and suddenly the prospect of being deployed overseas became more realistic.
"I think I probably still would have joined" after Sept. 11, Melton said.
After finishing training in the fall, Melton started at KU in spring 2002 and lived at Naismith Hall. His college career went on as normal until January 2003, when he received the call from his platoon sergeant that he would be deployed to the Middle East.
He dropped out of classes and spent about three months preparing at Fort Riley with the roughly 300 members of his unit. Then, in April, they left Topeka and flew into Kuwait, by way of Germany and Egypt.
Several weeks after his arrival in Kuwait came the first of his roughly 50 missions into Iraq: to drive a caravan of Humvees to Balad. Just inside Iraq, he remembers having to pass through Safwan, a border town he had been told was "like the Wild West." On the same day of the trip, two military police were killed there.
Driving into the country, he said it was like a picture of Mesopotamia from one of his junior high textbooks: a barren landscape smattered with huts. The town turned out to be quiet and peaceful as he passed through.
"That was probably the most nervous I was," he said.
But it wasn't the most dangerous situation. In coming months, he said, his unit was constantly on the road transporting tanks and other heavy equipment. One day he was driving on the outskirts of Baghdad in a convoy of about 20 vehicles.
"I remember something huge exploded in front of me a couple trucks ahead," he said.
It turned out to be a string of 19 improvised explosive devices. Only three or four of them actually went off, he said, or the damage could have been worse. No one was injured in the attack.
While in Kuwait, he was able to spend some time exercising and playing poker with his younger brother, Joe, who was deployed with the 530th Transportation Attachment out of Belton, Mo.
"It's a positive experience because you get to be a part of something that's big," said Joe Melton, a KU junior. "You just get a real appreciation for being an American and having opportunities."
Return to KU
Neil Melton said that after returning to the United States in spring 2004 and starting his KU classes again, the biggest difference was that he was eager to finish school and move on with life.
"I was a couple years older than most of the kids in my classes, and a lot of my friends were out of school," he said.
Melton is earning a degree in communication studies, looking for a full-time job, and has launched an Internet-based marketing business. In 10 years, he hopes to be financially independent and have a wife and children.
He remains on inactive reserve with the military until October 2008.