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BU Goes to War

Two alums on life and duty in Iraq and Afghanistan

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Mike Weisman (COM’03) in Samarra, Iraq, with the Golden Mosque, later destroyed, in the background. Photo courtesy of Mike Weisman

Tomorrow marks Veterans Day, a solemn occasion when the United States honors the men and women in the military who have fought and died for their country. First known as Armistice Day, it commemorated the armistice that ended World War I on the Western Front and later the American soldiers who died in the war.

Armistice Day became an official holiday in 1938. In 1954, its name was changed to Veterans Day and it now honors the men and women who served in the military in any capacity. 

For most of the past decade, the holiday has had a special poignancy as America continues to fight a war on two fronts: Iraq and Afghanistan. As of last week, 1,355 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and 4,430 in Iraq, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Boston University’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program has seen a number of graduates deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mike Weisman (COM’03) is one of nearly 50,000 American soldiers currently stationed in Iraq. Taylor Downs (CAS’08) is among the approximately 90,000 serving at present in Afghanistan.

BU Today recently spoke with Weisman and Downs from their overseas posts.

Mike Weisman
Weisman, a captain, is commander of Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry Division. Since first landing in Iraq in 2004, he has seen marked changes.

Now in his third tour of duty, the journalism major arrived as a platoon leader in charge of 40 soldiers responsible for training the Iraqi army and conducting patrols throughout Samarra, north of Baghdad. He says most locals at the time were “very anti-American and anti-government of Iraq.”

Weisman (far right) after a meeting with local government officials in East Baghdad. Photo courtesy of Mike Weisman

Weisman’s second deployment occurred during the 2006 surge, a time he recalls as “pretty intense.” He was second in command of nearly 200 soldiers charged with patrolling Baghdad and working with local governing councils.

“My battalion had the most casualties since Vietnam,” he says. “Our battalion lost 35 of 800 guys,” including Captain Anthony Palermo, a fellow BU ROTC grad who attended Bridgewater State College.

While injury and death have become a regular part of the 29-year-old Weisman’s job, he says that as troop leader, it’s critical that he remain level-headed. “If you train properly, then everything you do in reaction is muscle memory,” he says. “While something’s going on, you have to separate the emotion from it.”

He says that over the course of his deployments, the Army has gotten better at addressing soldiers’ mental health needs and now embeds a chaplain with each unit. Stabilizing conditions in Iraq have also made life easier, he says: “This deployment is definitely good for the psyche.”

Weisman (far left) in front of his company. Photo courtesy of Mike Weisman

Weisman is currently stationed in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where his company largely advises and assists the Iraqi army. Before, “we basically did all the heavy lifting, kicking in doors and engaging extremists,” he says. Now Iraqi units take the lead. “They’re pretty proficient about what they do.”

A self-described military brat, Weisman comes from a long line of veterans. Both his father and his maternal grandfather were Army men, but Weisman never imagined ROTC and a career in the Army for himself. Getting accepted to BU changed his mind. “I did it initially for the money,” he says, referring to ROTC’s tuition assistance benefits. But then, he says, he got hooked on the infantry experience.

Weisman credits BU’s four-year program with giving him discipline and providing a path to a great career that’s allowed him to travel the world. “It definitely makes you more mature than your peers coming out of college,” he says.

Taylor Downs
Most people run from bombs; Downs’ job is to disable them.

The 24-year-old Army first lieutenant arrived in eastern Afghanistan in late August, where he’s stationed with the third platoon’s 74th explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit. The ordnance members serve as glorified trouble-shooters. Once infantry soldiers discover a roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device (IED), it’s left to Downs and his colleagues to swoop in and “make sure it’s not going to hurt anyone.”

“Actually, it’s a lot of fun,” he says, “once you get over the initial jitters of thinking about what you’re doing.”

Taylor Downs (CAS’08) with a pile of controlled explosives in eastern Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Taylor Downs

Downs, who’s on his first Afghanistan mission, says it’s hard to describe a normal day. There’s always physical training, maintaining vehicles, and checking off other daily chores. But mission days can be completely unpredictable, from 3 a.m. wake-ups to midnight patrols.

Winter in Afghanistan is especially slow, Downs is discovering, since the enemy can’t easily bury IEDs in frozen and snow-covered ground.

His unit works with the Afghan National Security Forces. Despite the nature of his job, he feels safe, he says, but concedes that “there are times when it’s obviously more dangerous than others.”

The international relations major graduated from BU’s ROTC program and three weeks later entered officer basic training and EOD school.

Like Weisman, Downs has the Army in his blood. His father served in the Army, and his sister is enrolled in ROTC at Simmons College. The Massachusetts native says he enjoyed his four years in BU’s ROTC program, which he likens to “going to college, playing a varsity sport, and working a part-time job” all at once.

And while Downs says ROTC prepared him well, he acknowledges that “there’s a big difference between going to college and then being in the active-duty Army.”

Both Weisman and Downs say they plan to make a career in the military.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

3 Comments

3 Comments on BU Goes to War

  • Anonymous on 11.10.2010 at 10:04 am

    “Tomorrow marks Veterans Day, a solemn occasion when the United States honors the men and women in the military who have fought and died for their country.”

    And yet, Boston University refuses to celebrate Veterans Day as a holiday by holding classes. I can only guess how contemplative each student would be about the nature of such a holiday; but as the child of a Vietnam War veteran, I consider it unfortunate that November 11 will likely be overlooked in the minds of many. At least if we had the day off, it would force people to consider for what reason, and to hopefully, in everyone’s own way, think of it as a day to honor these veterans.

    Frankly, BU, I would rather have Veterans Day off than Columbus Day. The latter doesn’t much deserve a holiday in his honor.

  • Anonymous on 11.10.2010 at 10:52 am

    Thank you to our military heroes, like Weisman and Downs, who sacrifice so much to protect our country!

  • Anonymous on 11.10.2010 at 3:11 pm

    BU should definitely switch Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day for holidays. They probably only keep it because it allows them to do their “Monday becomes Tuesday” ridiculousness.

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