When Students Go to War
Andrew Tyson and Bryan Bintliff are second lieutenants. They met at Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Fordham University in 2007, where they commissioned and graduated from the program at the same time. They both graduated from The New School in 2009, using the GI Bill to subsidize their education. The two are friends, and like their country, have different perspectives on war. Tyson has been to Iraq and hopes to never go again. Bintliff awaits deployment. “I want to go,” he said.
Starting in June, 2005, Tyson served 11 months as an infantry buck sergeant in the 104th cavalry and upper turret M240 gunner in Ramadi, Iraq. "As a gunner you are the eyes, hears, and defender of your up-armored humvee," he wrote in an e-mail to the *Free Press*. "You are responsible for making split decisions and need to be in constant communication with your TC (Truck Commander) and driver."
"There were many close calls on my watch," Tyson added. "With a combination of teamwork, discipline, and luck we pulled through."
Tyson chose to enlist to maintain family tradition. Having grown up in a family whose military service he said dates back to the American Revolution, “It’s hard to be the break in the chain."
His other job was to photograph. “Since I always had a camera our commander tasked me with taking photos of everything to maintain a visual record,” he said in a separate interview.
In 2007, Tyson returned to the United States, and he last looked at his photographs over a year ago. “They’ve been put to bed,” he said. He declined to discuss what he photographed saying only that it was "very unpleasant."
Tyson enrolled at Parsons in 2007 and attended programs at the Veterans Health Administrations Unit on First Avenue and 23rd Street, which helped him adapt to city life. “It was tough at first, but I enrolled at the VA hospital at 23rd Street, and they kind of helped me with some things,” he said. “They were a great resource.”
Tyson is now with the 369th Harlem Hellfighters unit.
While at Parsons, Tyson received $900 per month from the GI Bill, which he used to pay rent for an apartment near Tompkins Square Park. He also earned a monthly drill pay of $200 from the 69th Infantry. While he still has $40,000 in student loans and must finish his army contract in the ROTC, these costs are less grave than that of war. “Going back to school was the best way to avoid additional deployments,” said Tyson.
Since 2001, 17,839 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq and remained in combat. 13,936 have been wounded and sent back to the U.S. 4,394 have been killed.
Bintliff majored in psychology and joined the ROTC in 2007 the summer before his junior year at Lang, when his future looked dim. Unlike Tyson, he didn’t grow up in a military family. His decision to join the armed services was fully independent.
“I took action," said Bintliff. “I did something that paid for college completely. It made me independent almost overnight and became a kind of task and purpose.”
Bintliff is now with the 4th stryker brigade combat team of the second infantry division, where he currently works as a recruiting officer while he awaits deployment.
In 2009, Bintliff graduated from Lang wearing his 400 dress blues, the gold shoulder boards on his fitted navy coat showing his rank, second lieutenant. It was a warm, spring day when 900 people came together for the ceremony at the First Presbyterian Church on 12th Street. Bintliff said he got looks of shock, confusion, and disgust. In return, he smiled with pride.
“The funny part was, one of the members of the board speaking at graduation was an ex-Marine captain and he found me afterwards," said Bintliff. The man shook Bintliff’s hand and said, “Congrats. Give 'em Hell, lieutenant.” “Thank you, sir. Will do,” Bintliff responded.
Zishan Ugurlu, assistant professor of theater at Lang, wasn’t at graduation last May. If she had been, she said, she would’ve tried to stop Bintliff from wearing the uniform, just as she tried to stop him from joining the Army when she was his teacher.
Ugurlu grew up in Turkey, from where she said friends of hers emigrated to flee military conscription. She said that Bintliff told her he needed discipline and that the Army would pay for his education. He said that joining was his own choice. For Ugurlu, these reasons weren’t enough.
“Americans are very into saying, ‘It’s your choice,' and I respect that,” said Ugurlu. “But to me it was that your choice had been done without seeing the reality of it.” Ugurlu said she tried to offer Bintliff alternative options here in the city to receive support and discipline. Still, she could not change his mind.
2,400 soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan. 3,100 have been wounded and returned to the U.S. 1,044 are dead.
“You are face to face with death,” said Ugurlu. “I said to him, ‘Bryan, are you ready?'”
Bintliff has heard the grim truths about this war from soldiers who’ve already been overseas, but says it’s still difficult to fully evaluate what his own future abroad will be like. “I haven’t experienced it, so I’m just going off what I think I want,” he said. He anticipates his greatest challenge to be best fulfilling his given job as platoon leader. “Mostly I hope I’m able to do my job. That’s what I’m nervous about.”
Currently, Bintliff is back at Fordham University, where he’s been able to see friends, family, and his girlfriend. “It’s been excellent,” he said. Next month he’ll be sent to Fort Lewis in Washington, where he’ll remain until he’s deployed to Afghanistan in an estimated 18 months to three years. “I want to go,” he said. “I do. I want to see what’s going on for real. It was one thing I was thinking about when joining up…I wanted to see it for myself and this was the way to see it.”
For Tyson, his experience in war was frightening, but if required to, he would return to duty. "Nobody wants to go to combat," he said. "If I am called up again, I'll serve."