Towson graduate calls on experience as a Marine

Triple-major starts center on campus for fellow veterans

May 19, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Years before he had to get up for 10 a.m. courses, Patrick Young had to be awake at dawn for the grueling drills of Marine boot camp. Before he wrestled with questions of faith and ethics in a Towson University classroom, he faced them on the battlefield, with bullets whizzing past and thoughts of dead friends on his mind.

Young, 27, would be one of the more noteworthy seniors graduating Friday regardless. At Towson, he triple-majored in religion, philosophy and political science. At times, he carried three jobs to go with his three majors. Oh, and he minored in drama, appearing in a campus production of "The Crucible" and performing at the Timonium Dinner Theatre. And don't forget the semester in Italy, where he proposed to his girlfriend in one of the world's most romantic cities.

But before all that, he was a Marine in Iraq, dodging bullets as he cleared house after house on the way into the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

Early in his time at Towson, Young realized that he no longer had much in common with the average 18-year-old. But he identified strongly with the dozens of other veterans he encountered, so he helped to found an organization for the 300 or so at Towson. They have their own center now, and Young hopes to land a job as the liaison between the university and its former soldiers. If that goes well, he'd like to become a regional and national leader in helping veterans to pursue the kind of education he has received.

"I always thought I wanted to do something to continue the mission that wasn't done when I was in Iraq," he says.

The dropout rate for veterans is similar to that for other students. That nags at Young, because with the right federal grants, a former soldier can essentially make $2,000 a month to go to college full time.

"A vet dropping out doesn't seem right," he says. "I think we can turn the tide. I see it as a need that's going to be in place for a while, so there's no reason I shouldn't be the one to help it be met."

"They really do trust him," says his fiancee, Meghan Walton, of Young's fellow veterans. "He will fight for them. I think this could be almost like closure for him."

'You're going to war'

Young grew up in Catonsville, hanging out at the Knights of Columbus hall down the street and listening to the older men tell their stories of wars long past. His grandfather served in the Navy during World War II and his father was in the Air Force just before the Vietnam War. Young always assumed he would follow in their footsteps, to the point that he neglected his studies at Mount St. Joseph High School. A month and a half after graduation in 2001, he landed at Marine boot camp in Parris Island, S.C.

He didn't think much about combat because "who would be dumb enough to attack us?"

One day, two months into boot camp, an odd commotion broke out and a drill instructor barked at Young and his cohorts, "You better shut your mouths, because after today, you're going to war."

News trickled in of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Then, it just got real," Young says of his service. "I was second-guessing myself over the whole situation. I was scared. Everybody was."

He was first deployed to Iraq in March 2003. He did some patrolling but stayed for barely a month. "We felt like we missed it," he says of the war.

But he went back in June 2004. He spent months patrolling and providing security for a dam and then, late that year, U.S. forces massed to attack Fallujah. Young's unit headed straight down the center. He remembers the darkness of that night, his sergeant's exhortations to "get 'em back" for all the Americans lost, the dead silence when rounds began flying in and out of the city.

He lost all sense of time during the first days of the invasion. The Marines couldn't walk down the bomb-infested roads, so they busted into each house, cleared it and moved to the next via roof or courtyard.

Young appreciated the honesty of the combat because the Marines were invading a city filled with hardened warriors. They weren't having to glance over their shoulders for innocent-looking civilians who might be hiding bombs.

"It was a really good fight," he says. "It was the way the whole war should've been."

He tried not to step back and contemplate what they were doing. But he "lost it" when news came that Nick Ziolkowski, a sniper from Towson, had been killed nearby. The two loved to share cigars sent by Ziolkowski's dad, and they had plans to rent a house from Ziolkowski's brother after the war. Young knew how badly Ziolkowski wanted to see his niece. "I was the one who thought about dying," he says. "He just wanted to get home."

"It was so weird because you knew the whole funeral had gone on, but you're still there," he says. "There wasn't even time to breathe. There would be time to mourn everybody later."

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