Fire Away: A Veteran’s Journey From War To College
By Timothy Schumacher
“An Army veteran uses two different weapons to combat the struggles of adjusting to college life after war.”
Twenty-five meters stands between UF senior Chad Alpaugh and his target at the Ocala Shooting Range. After picking up a civilian version of the Army’s M-4 assault rifle, he places his index finger above the trigger and slaps a 30-round-clip into the magazine well. Alpaugh pulls the charging handle back and releases it, loading a bullet into the rifle. His towering frame leans forward over the wooden shooting bench as he aims the semi-automatic rifle at his target. The twenty-seven-year-old switches the safety to the fire position and places his finger on the trigger. To compensate for the rise from the bullet’s high velocity at short distances, he adjusts the aim of the red dot scope. His heart beats faster. He pulls twice.
Bang Bang… Bang Bang…Bang bang…
Alpaugh empties the rest of the rounds into the target, places the safety selector switch to safe and removes the magazine. He puts the rifle down and picks up an AK-47. After locking in a 30-round-banana clip, he pushes the safety lever down to the fire position and loads a round into the rifle. The Ohio native aims the iron sight of the heavier rifle at the target and slowly squeezes the trigger. Bang…..Bang..…Bang…..
After adjusting to the recoil of the bigger round, he unloads on the target.
Bang Bang Bang Bang…BOOOM.
Alpaugh’s mind flashes back to his fifteen-month deployment in Iraq during 2007-2009 with the Army’s 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment, based in Germany. An improvised explosive device (IED) just went off north of Baghdad in the city of Old Baquba, hitting Specialist Alpaugh’s vehicle.
Bang Bang Bang Bang.
Incoming small arms fire comes raining in from nearby apartments at his eleven o’clock position. The infantryman swings the gun turret toward the cracking sounds as he pushes his machine gun’s safety button to fire. Specialist Alpaugh surveys what is known as the kill zone. It’s the approximately 200 meters that stands in between him and the enemy. After adjusting the aim of his 26-pound fully automatic belt fed machine gun called a 240 bravo toward the enemy, he opens up.
A hand-loaded musket that looks like something Davy Crockett once used just went off about six feet away at the Ocala Shooting Range. Alpaugh pauses and says with a half-startled laugh, “Holy shit! That was loud!” After shaking off the nerves, he refocuses on his target.
Bang bang bang bang.
The Army Commendation Medal recipient empties the rest of the bullets into the target, drops the magazine and puts the weapon on safe. As he lays the rifle on the shooting bench, his serious demeanor is interrupted by a giant grin.
“That was fucking awesome,” he says. Alpaugh lights a Marlboro Light cigarette and sits on the bench behind the firing line.
His mind is at peace somewhere between college and war. Alpaugh, one of thousands of veterans who struggle to integrate back into society after serving in the military, has found a familiar way to deal with the difficult transition. While some veterans turn to drugs, alcohol, fast cars and motorcycles to relive the adrenaline rush they experienced during war, he turns to the gun range.
“It’s a great way to burn off built-up stress,” Alpaugh says. “It’s a much needed break in between all my exams, studying, papers and the day-to-day grind of university life. It’s like when I play the guitar or work out; it allows me to clear my thoughts and focus.”
After being discharged from active duty in 2009, Alpaugh began his long journey of adjusting to civilian life.
“At first I had a hard time reconnecting,” he says. “When I was in Iraq all I thought about was home, but when I got home all I thought about was Iraq. It was as if I was trapped in between. It’s something I have really come to terms with since taking Dr. Kligerman’s Kafka class.”
Alpaugh says he was able to identify with the Jewish writer who wrote in German, lived in Prague and struggled in between reality and the world in his books. The class opened his eyes to the parallels of his own two worlds. He says he felt caught in the same paradox as Kafka after being discharged from the military.
For four years Alpaugh lived and breathed the Army life. His family and friends back home were just pictures with the occasional phone call that brought the photos to life. He traveled the world and lived a care-free existence. But suddenly the Army life was gone and all that remained was a world he hadn’t known since 2005 when he left behind his job working in a factory in the small-town of Bryan, Ohio for basic training.
When Alpaugh returned to Ohio in 2009, most of his friends had moved elsewhere or settled down into families. He had to deal with the reality that his active duty Army friends were no longer by his side and he had to come to realize he was no longer the same person as when he left. It was a culture shock for someone who spent four years with the same people who wore the same uniform and endured the same day-to-day BS. He found some relief by serving once a month in the National Guard. However, the integration into society became more challenging when he moved to Gainesville to attend Sante Fe College in 2009 and later when he transferred to UF.
War veterans like Alpaugh walk in between us in the hallways. They sit in between us in the classroom. Their camouflaged backpacks go unseen. Their combat infantry badges go unnoticed. Their stories go untold. There are no rooms housing their medals. There are no jerseys with their names on the back. There are no bronze statues immortalizing soldiers like UF alumnus Maj. Alan G. Rogers, who was killed in Iraq. The military life, which was everything to Alpaugh, suddenly seemed irrelevant once he stepped foot on campus. The perceptions and priorities of what is important in life quickly changed.
“Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly,” said Morticia Addams in the movie The Addams Family.
Normal for soldiers is death, boredom, dirty jokes, guns, starving children and risking your life for something greater than one’s self. For young students, normal is parties, sports games, Lady Gaga and boat shoes. Veterans trying to connect with students can be like trying to cross that awkward space between two cultures that don’t quite understand each other. The language is different. The mindsets are different. College can be like two parallel dimensions operating on the same frequency.
“It’s really difficult,” Alpaugh says, “college tends to be a place where you grow into your own person. Having already gone through this in Germany and Iraq, I tend to feel alienated in an environment I have a hard time understanding anymore.”
But Alpaugh says he now realizes civilians don’t know what he knows; they only know what the corporate media tells them.
“It’s not really their fault,” he says. “I don’t even like to try and explain it anymore. Between what is portrayed on television, be it true or extremely sensationalized, telling one’s first-hand story doesn’t seem to translate into what a person’s preconceived information might be and your story is somewhat shrugged off. But I totally get it. Iraq desensitized me to a lot of what would be considered first-rate issues here in the states. But because I’ve seen how a less fortunate nation lives, I had a hard time sympathizing or relating when I got back. Don’t get me wrong. I am not pointing fingers. I’m just trying to explain the indifference which occurs.”
The media never showed the school supplies or the care packages that Alpaugh and his unit delivered to local villages. They rarely show positive aspects of what the military does, just the death toll or who won the bloody battle.
That’s why Alpaugh says the first question he usually gets asked is, “’Did you kill anyone? And it’s usually with the connotation that you are either less of a person if you didn’t kill someone, or you’re a baby killer,” he says. Alpaugh has realized that people generally don’t understand what a question such as that does: It pisses him off. But he has learned not to get angry at people’s lack of understanding. Alpaugh says he prefers when people realize they can’t comprehend what he went through but still make an effort to care instead of making an ignorant remark.
Alpaugh says the the gun range has become a great tool to bridge this gap between his past military life and his current one at UF. He invited his classmate Mathias Sepulchre, criminology major, to join along. Sepulchre never served in the military nor had he ever shot a gun. But he knew Alpaugh was a trained expert in firearms, so he decided to join.
Sepulchre’s lack of experience with the rifle is highly visible. As soon as Sepulchre grabs the rifle he immediately places his finger on the trigger. Alpaugh politely corrects him: “Only do that if you’re ready to fire,” he says. Sepulchre nods and follows the instructions. He aims the AK-47 toward the target and nervously pulls the trigger.
He unloads seven more rounds into the target then sets the rifle down. “Wow, that was fun,” Sepulchre says with a giant smile. Alpaugh leans back and laughs, sharing in the moment. It’s moments like these that Alpaugh lives for: The reconnection and bridging the gap between his two worlds.
But Alpaugh knows he can’t always depend on finding people who care about his war, and he can’t always depend on finding other veterans who understand, as people come and go. He knows he can’t always depend on going to the gun range, as bullets can cost more than $100 for a day at the range.
But the one outlet he leans on to help him reconnect is one that has been by his side the whole time, and it’s one he almost sold because of a five-year relationship that went sour after his return from Iraq in 2009. It never left his side, even when others gave up on him. It was his Martin acoustic guitar. But the neck was broken and left for dead at the apartment he shared with his ex-fiance. After the strained relationship ended, he decided to repair what was left of the guitar. Alpaugh said he is glad he did.
It helps him remember the smiles on his Army buddies’ faces as they complained and joked around with each other to break up the daily grind of war. The guitar helps him remember the roar of his Stryker fighting vehicle, the crack of his gun, and the smell of fresh gunpowder burning in the desert sun.
The soothing echoes that escape from the guitar’s wooden walls help him find peace from the emotional pain of all he’s been through: the look of despair from a starving child staring into his soul; the gut-wrenching feeling he felt as he answered the phone call and learned that his fellow soldier, 21-year-old Army sniper Patrick Gibbs, hung himself after returning from their deployment.
The guitar helps him reconnect with himself in what he calls the “within” — a deep place in his soul where he can channel his emotions from his childhood, war and his heartbreaking failed relationship. Here, there is no tug of war in opposite directions or exams he has to worry about passing. There are no emotionally charged moments of looking down at a cell phone call and seeing a father he wants nothing to do with. He has no concern about breaking through his father’s wall. His only concern is breaking through his own. There is no anxiety from having to wait three days for the VA to tell him if he will receive his education benefits in time to pay rent, nor is there a feeling of despair from having to wait two months to see a VA doctor for his sleeping issues. There are no thoughts of his fellow soldier hanging from the ceiling. Here, it’s just him, deep within…..
He begins strumming his guitar. He looks down and closes his eyes. The words start flowing out…..
Since I’ve been back, I haven’t really left
These days are getting harder and starting to turn into a fucking mess
Cause whatever I do never seems good enough for you
Whatever I say is never enough for you
What I experienced never meant shit to you
And it’s not like you to call or care
Or see how I am doing now
And that’s why I miss my war
I miss my gun
I miss my brothers and all the fun
I miss the roar of a Stryker and the crack of a gun
I miss everyone
I miss everyone
I miss everyone
Timothy Schumacher joined the Army Reserve as a Light Wheel Vehicle Mechanic (63B) after 9-11. On January 17th 2003 he was activated for a 15 month deployment with the 320th Military Police Company. When his unit became stretched thin from running convoy escort missions and an Enemy Prisoner of War camp, he often found himself as a Humvee Gunner on countless missions outside the wire. He spent the first seven months at Tallil Air Base and the last four months at Abu Ghraib Prison where he survived over 26 enemy attacks from mortars, RPGs and small arms fire. He served in the National Guard’s 2/124th infantry(11B) as a team leader (Sgt. E-5) from 2006-2011. He attended the University of Florida and received a B.S. in Journalism in 2012. In the summer of 2016 he graduated from the University of Tampa’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Currently he is working on turning his thesis about Iraq into a book.