Wednesday, May 23, 2007
First in a two-part series
Two years into a degree at the University of Southern Maine, Perry O’Brien dropped out to join the Army.
It was August 2001, and O’Brien was restless and searching for adventure, for an environment that could offer more in the way of life experience than a campus in Southern Maine.
On some level his abrupt change of direction wasn’t so unusual. Plenty of 20-year-olds like O’Brien leave school to find themselves. They backpack through Europe or drive cross-country or join AmeriCorps. But none of these options appealed to him. Looking back, he says, they all seemed too predictable for a white, privileged kid like himself. If he was going to find himself, he wanted to leave his privilege behind.
The military seemed like the place to do so. O’Brien had grown up on an island off the coast of Maine in a liberal, artsy family with liberal, artsy friends. Sure, he liked action movies and played with G.I. Joes, but no one he grew up with was connected to the military, and the service had never appealed to him before.
After long discussions with his parents, they were “cautiously supportive.” And so, as the island made the transition from tourist season to the relative calm of fall, O’Brien signed up at his local recruiting office.
He was set to spend four years in the army training to become a medic. He might do a humanitarian deployment or two, he imagined, and when he got out, he’d be a paramedic and eventually go back to school.
But then on Sept. 11, 2001, a brilliantly clear morning in his first week of training, came the attacks that would change the military’s focus and Perry O’Brien’s life.
Nearly six years have passed since O’Brien stepped into that recruiter’s office in Maine. He’s 26 now, and he still wears his blonde hair like a military man, cropped close to his head. With the buzz cut and his muscular upper body he would look tough, except for the broad grin that keeps spreading across his face. It’s an unpolished, natural smile that reveals a slight under-bite–a smile that, because it doesn’t win you over, puts you at ease.
On this warm, sunny evening in April 2007, O’Brien is approaching the end of another year studying political theory at Cornell University. He’ll graduate next year and then apply to MFA programs in creative writing. His goals these days bear little resemblance to the plans he was creating in the fall of 2001.
O’Brien leans forward slightly, his huge arms folded on the table in front of him at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, N.Y. He speaks easily about the last six years of his life; he’s told this story over and over again.
In October 2002, O’Brien’s unit received their deployment instructions. They had just finished a “mock war” training operation in Louisiana when they learned they would be going to Afghanistan.