Student veteran speaks of war
December 1, 2007
__Neil Riley ’08, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan before coming to the College, talks about his experience in two wars__
p. Twenty-first birthdays are often celebrated at a bar, not under a tent in a war-torn country.
p. Neil Riley ’08, a student-veteran at the College, chuckled as he explained that for his 21st birthday, he wasn’t allowed to drink, as he was a soldier in the United States Army on duty in Afghanistan.
p. Hoping to make up for the inauspicious circumstances, Riley’s mother mailed him a unique birthday present. Describing it as a “super rum cake,” Riley confessed that it was filled with more rum than cake. “It tasted bad, but we were like, ‘Oh my god.’”
p. In October 2000, Riley signed up with his local recruiter after graduating from high school, deciding with his family that the army would help him pay for college and find motivation. He did not consider joining the army until his senior year of high school.
p. “All my friends went off to college,” he said. “I did this by myself.”
p. Riley entered the service Jan. 7, 2001, in Fort Benning, Ga.
p. He served in basic training for nine weeks, and he was allotted a single, three-minute phone call for the duration.
p. Following graduation from boot camp, Riley was allowed to see his family for six hours, after which he boarded a bus to Advanced Individual Training, where he remained until late June.
p. “I mean, it sucks, but you have to go through it,” he said. “I tell everyone that my drill sergeants saved my life in Afghanistan and Iraq because of the training, and that’s a fact.”
p. Riley reported for active duty in Fort Bragg, N.C., two weeks before the terrorist attack on Sept. 11.
p. “I remember because I was under a truck, and I had to change something, and I was frustrated because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “Out of nowhere, the major of the battalion came sprinting down and screamed, ‘Get the fuck out of the motor pool right now. Move.’ We were going to lock up our stuff but he said there was no time for that.
p. “After we ran back to the company, they took everyone’s cell phone and said that we couldn’t make any calls. We all went over to the TV and, by this point, we knew that both towers had fallen and not by accident. And then, within a split second, it hit me. I was going to be called into action.”
p. Riley departed for Afghanistan in October of the following year. Positioned at Bagram Airbase, 27 miles north of Kabul, Riley and his unit were ordered to maintain the communications system in and around the base.
p. “I tell everyone that Afghanistan is one of the most scenic countries you could ever see,” he said. “Stepping off the plane into this open valley, it was mid-fall and in the distance were snow-capped mountains. It was beautiful.”
p. Some of his fondest memories are of his relationship with the Afghani community. “I loved the Afghani locals, they were the nicest people,” he said. Though most of the locals only spoke broken English, Riley would frequently speak to them through a translator.
p. His multi-cultural experiences were not limited to Afghanis, as he worked with English, French, Polish and Italian soldiers.
p. “I saw Afghanistan as this amazing achievement,” he said. “The entire international community coming together and getting the job done. And the Afghani people were very appreciative.”
p. Times were not always so encouraging, however. The night of his arrival to the base, a machine gun battle took place on the perimeter. The base was under the first of many mortar attacks, which occurred up to 20 times a day.
p. “Afghanistan was rough,” he said. “We slept in a 10-man tent the entire time we were there. The tent was put up on wooden stilts, and I didn’t realize why until February. February was the rainy season and the whole valley flooded. Even our little communications shack had to be raised off the ground because we were standing in a foot of water.”
p. With his life constantly at risk, the strain of war was unbearable at times. “How can you live under that kind of pressure for nine months straight? For 24/7 you are constantly on edge. Everyone is on edge. I mean, you’re supposed to be on edge, but to do it for that long, you know? It takes a toll on you, it really does.”
p. Living in a state of borderline insomnia, Riley estimated that he received no more than two to three hours of sleep per night. “You can’t sleep because you are always thinking, ‘Did I clean my weapon? Are my soldiers okay?’”
p. Although Riley was scheduled to leave in March, army officials ordered the soldiers to remain for an extra three months due to the invasion of Iraq.
p. Riley finally returned to the states in June 2003.
p. He said it was difficult to fall asleep in his bed at home.
p. “Every night in Afghanistan, I slept with my weapon. I had it with me at all times, and at night I kept it in my sleeping bag. So in the middle of the night, I woke up and felt around for my gun, and when it wasn’t there, I began freaking out. Then finally I realized, ‘I’m in America, I don’t need my gun anymore.’”
p. Most would consider someone who couldn’t sleep without his gun deranged. But Riley is anything but deranged; he is like any other ordinary student. Originally from Ashburn, Va., Riley is a graduate of Bishop O’Connell High School. He is the resident assistant of Unit J, and the cinderblock walls of his room at school are no longer visible, entirely covered by flags and posters of Arsenal, one of England’s top soccer clubs.
p. “Neil has seen a lot more of the world than many undergraduates,” said William Rennegal, Riley’s Intelligence and Public Policy professor. “In class, he is very focused. He often raises points of clarification, which is fun because it keeps me on my toes.”
p. Before arriving at the College, Riley took online classes while in the army. He said that studying was one of the few things that could keep his mind off the horrors of war. He completed his application to the College while fighting in Iraq.
p. Riley returned to active duty at Fort Bragg in June 2003. Though he was scheduled to complete his duty and leave the army in November 2004, he was informed three months in advance that he would be deployed to Iraq.
p. For Riley, the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan was the added responsibility of being promoted to a sergeant. He explained that in Iraq, “There was much more pressure having people under me always relying on me to tell them what to do. They rely on you constantly and it was a lot of pressure.”
p. On a daily basis, Riley was in command of four men and had 16 people to supervise within the squad. His primary concern was for two soldiers under his command who were both married and had several children at home.
p. “I always thought, ‘If I don’t get these guys back home in one piece, I’ll fail.’ To me, that would be failure. Whereas some guys were like, ‘We need to kill terrorists,’ I just cared about getting my guys back home safely and in one piece.”
p. The constant, agonizing stress he faced as a sergeant in Iraq was exhausting. He explained that he could not reveal any signs of fear or weakness to his soldiers.
p. “Whatever I made them do, I would do double. If I ordered them to carry a 40-pound ruck, then I would carry one that’s 80 pounds,” he said. “I look back now and realize that I was only 23 at the time. I was way too young for what I was doing, for the amount of responsibility I had.”
p. Besides his anxiety caused by greater responsibility, Riley remembered the increased political awareness of the soldiers in Iraq.
p. Riley told a story of a soldier in his unit who had a “freak out” during a meal in the cafeteria. The TV was turned on and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was reporting on the success of the occupation in Iraq.
p. “We were in the middle of talking about how it was total bullshit, when one of the my soldiers got violently upset and threw his tray in the cafeteria and screamed, ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’”
No matter what their rank, Riley noted that most soldiers talked about politics incessantly.
p. “In Afghanistan, we felt like we were doing good everyday, but in Iraq it was survival. You were just there to survive, do your time, and then get the hell out. Maybe that wasn’t the best mentality, but that’s how we survived.”
p. He explained that his time in Iraq led to his newfound interest in politics.
p. “Even coming back from Afghanistan, I didn’t care about politics. But when you start to see it affect the people around you and affect your life to the point where you can’t do what you want to anymore — they took a year of my life. That’s when I really got involved and started reading a lot of books and following the news.
p. And I thought that maybe this Iraq War wasn’t such a great idea.”
p. In November 2005, Riley and his unit were told they were going home, almost exactly a year from the day they arrived in Iraq.
p. The men had heard of several instances where soldiers had served their time and were being sent home, but just before departure were ordered to stay longer in Iraq. Consequently, there was dead silence in the plane while it remained on the ground in Kuwait waiting to take them home.
p. “When we took off, there was the biggest cheer in the world,” Riley said. “Everyone was celebrating, going ballistic. That was my entire unit. We left together and we came back together.”