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Volume 41. No. 1.
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A Soldier's Story

Marine reservist Paul Nesvig '05's academic career was interrupted by a stint in Iraq.

By Mark Kendall

As missiles cut across the sky, Lance Cpl. Paul Nesvig ’05 would hunker down in a cramped desert ditch and wonder “is that one coming down here?”

He’d be packed in with 30 or so other soldiers, with gas masks on and little room to move. Some guys would pass out from dehydration. A few would start to lose it and have to be held down.

“You have some time to come to terms with your own mortality,” says Nesvig, 23. “You sit there thinking, ‘there’s nothing I can do.’”

Many Pomona College students spend a semester studying abroad. Nesvig got his overseas education in a very different way: he joined the Marines and was sent off to Iraq.

The Marine reservist is a member of Bulk Fuel Company C of the 6th Engineering Support Battalion, based out of Nesvig’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. Their job was to fuel up tanks and other vehicles in the fast-moving U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Nesvig returned from the war a year ago, but the memories remain vivid. As the invasion began, the pace was frenetic, with Nesvig getting an hour or two of sleep at night. Fears of chemical or biological warfare forced him frequently to don a gas mask. He endured blinding sandstorms. He lived on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that didn’t taste much better than sand. At times, the flies were so thick that he only bothered to shoo away the ones on his face.

Nesvig spent part of his time at mobile fueling outposts, spread a mile or two apart across the desert and manned with a dozen or so soldiers. At 6’3’’ and 240 lbs., he was called on to do plenty of grunt work, carrying packs and other equipment. “I was like a pack mule,” he says.

Mostly, though, Nesvig and his fellow soldiers endured a sense of boredom as vast and flat as the desert. They played a lot of cards and smoked a lot of cigarettes. They were so desperate for entertainment that they’d pit scorpions and other insects against each other in fights. The soldiers spent their last month or so of the deployment in Kuwait, just waiting for a flight out. “After a while, it’s just mind-numbing,” Nesvig says.

Even so, Nesvig says he has enjoyed his military service and may apply to Officer Candidates School at some point. “I’ve never had that kind of brotherhood,” he says of the soldiers in his battalion. “You’re family.”

As for his Iraq duty, “I wouldn’t want to do it again,” Nesvig says. “But I certainly felt like it was worthwhile.”

His political views are hard to pigeon-hole. Nesvig supports Democratic Sen. John Kerry for president, but he also believes that many Iraqis have benefited from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Nesvig joined the Marines late in 2001, after his sophomore year at Pomona. He wanted to “do something different, get some real-world experience.” He took a year off from school for Boot Camp and other training, and returned for the first semester of his junior year.

Then his battalion was called up in February 2003. He returned from Iraq in the early summer and returned to the College in August of that same year. In retrospect, he realizes it was too soon to come back to campus. He went through a “coming down phase,” processing his emotions that he set aside while at war.

”When I first got back, I was jumpy as hell,” he says. “You’re used to being so tense.”
Most of his friends had graduated, and, living off campus, he felt isolated. But Nesvig says Pomona administrators have been very understanding and helpful. And looking back, he believes he has benefited from his experiences in two very different worlds. He can understand all kinds of people.

“I’ve been to the most liberal place in the world in Pomona,” he says. “And the most conservative place in the world in the United States Marine Corps.”

For his senior year at Pomona, Nesvig is moving back onto campus for the first time in three years. “My goal is to be a normal student,” he says.
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