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CCU Atheneum: Paul Olsen and Ken Townsend with Alan Case, middle, at the Kandihar International Airport in Afghanistan.
Paul Olsen and Ken Townsend with Alan Case, middle, at the Kandihar International Airport in Afghanistan.

Professors conduct follow-up interviews with soldiers

by Mona Prufer
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Ken Townsend and Paul Olsen went to war three years ago, and now they’re ready for a second trip.

Townsend, chair of the Department of History, and Olsen, chair of the Department of Visual Arts, were embedded with the U.S. Army 205th Corps in the Afghanistan conflict against the Taliban. That was the summer of 2006. When the professors returned, they made public presentations,heavily illustrated with Olsen’s photography, sharing the “personal, human side of a war largely forgotten by the news media,” according to Townsend.

This past summer, the two traveled around the United States, conducting interviews with six of the men and women they met in Afghanistan while they were deployed there. They also interviewed their families, when available.

“We wanted to find out how the war has affected the soldiers,” says Townsend, “and how the war has touched their families stateside.”

Townsend has a son, Brandon, who has completed two combat tours (30 months) in Iraq. “Being in a war zone, even a different one from Brandon, gave me a little more understanding of what my son was experiencing.”

Nick Pilozzi of Watertown, N.Y., was one such soldier they were able to catch up with. He is described by the professors as a 22-year-old who is “still a kid, but not a kid.” He entered military service with great enthusiasm because of a family tradition of service. Then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sealed the deal. Pilozzi enlisted and never looked back. “He and his family are what this country is built on,” says Townsend.

Pilozzi survived a helicopter crash and an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) explosion at his gunner turret on a Humvee. “Once I realized I wasn’t dead, I got up and kept fighting,” says the former soldier.

He was sent home with a medical discharge. Pilozzi, who suffered short-term memory loss from his injuries (he still has shrapnel in his body), is attending the local community college, intent on working with veterans, especially those who are injured. He has not changed his values, and he still supports the war. In fact, he wishes he were back with his combat unit, not to fight a war but to support them as he feels he is still part of that unit.

Amber Myers is another such soldier. An eighth-grade social studies teacher, she signed up with the Alaskan National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan,where she celebrated her first wedding anniversary. Alone. (Her new husband also signed up for service, but was not dispatched.) Myers quit the Army after she returned to Alaska. She talked with Olsen and Townsend during a vacation this summer to Topsail Beach, N.C.

Lt. Scott Marmen, in his mid 30s, took Paul and Ken with his unit on a foot patrol outside Kabul. He is now a captain in the Oklahoma National Guard, a career Army man and “a very good officer,” according to Townsend.

Jordan Bair was only 19 and living on the streets back east with his pregnant girlfriend when he joined the Army for the medical benefits they needed. (She dumped him once they enlisted.) Olsen and Townsend met Bair outside the PX in Kandahar, Afghanistan. His current girlfriend, who is from Chicago, has a “psychological profile” with the Army, which prevents her from handling a weapon; nonetheless, the Army is sending her to Baghdad.

Frank Nocera is a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who has seen much destruction. The war is personal for him since he saw firsthand the destruction of the World Trade Centers on Sept. 11, 2001. Even though Nocera,who is also from Watertown, N.Y., was home for only 15 days of R&R, he still agreed to be interviewed by the professors to “get the story out from the soldiers’ perspective to remind people there is a war going on overthere.” “It doesn’t matter what your role,” adds Townsend, “You are forever changed if you go over there.”

Olsen, who served in the Vietnam War, agrees to a dejavu feeling.

For the two professors studying the personal impact of war - how has the war affected the soldiers, how has war affected their families stateside—they aren’t really sure where the journey is taking them. Possibly, there’s a book in their future, or in the very least presentations across campus and the community.

“We are letting the story pretty much dictate what happens here,” they say. “What we see on television and the news isn’t necessarily what’s going on. We are trying to dig in and show the parts that aren’t getting reported. It’s very important for people to understand it’s not just life and death; this war business goes much deeper.”

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