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School Can Wait: Puerto Rico Guardsmen Postpone College to Serve

By Army 1st Lt. Dustin Lawson, Ohio National Guard

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Oct. 25, 2017 — When a soldier receives the order that they are being deployed to another country, they often have months to prepare. When a National Guardsman is called up to help with recovery efforts for a natural disaster, they usually only have days to prepare.

Army Spc. Jacob Parker, a health care specialist with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 285th Medical Company, takes the vital signs of a patient at a temporary medical outreach station posted on a residential street in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Oct. 21, 2017. Parker is part of a Rapid Assessment Team that travels to members of the community who need medical attention, but are unable to make it to a hospital or aid station due to road closures or lack of transportation following Hurricane Maria. Ohio Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Joanna Bradshaw
Army Spc. Jacob Parker, a health care specialist with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 285th Medical Company, takes the vital signs of a patient at a temporary medical outreach station posted on a residential street in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Oct. 21, 2017. Parker is part of a Rapid Assessment Team that travels to members of the community who need medical attention, but are unable to make it to a hospital or aid station due to road closures or lack of transportation following Hurricane Maria. Ohio Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Joanna Bradshaw
Army Spc. Jacob Parker, a health care specialist with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 285th Medical Company, takes the vital signs of a patient at a temporary medical outreach station posted on a residential street in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Oct. 21, 2017. Parker is part of a Rapid Assessment Team that travels to members of the community who need medical attention, but are unable to make it to a hospital or aid station due to road closures or lack of transportation following Hurricane Maria. Ohio Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Joanna Bradshaw Ohio National Guard medics provide support to Puerto Rico
Army Spc. Jacob Parker, a health care specialist with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 285th Medical Company, takes the vital signs of a patient at a temporary medical outreach station posted on a residential street in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Oct. 21, 2017. Parker is part of a Rapid Assessment Team that travels to members of the community who need medical attention, but are unable to make it to a hospital or aid station due to road closures or lack of transportation following Hurricane Maria. Ohio Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Joanna Bradshaw

But, joining the National Guard comes with the understanding that when a crisis hits the United States, a guardsman must be ready to quickly put life on hold to answer the call to help.

For many in school, that may mean taking a semester off from college that has already started. This is the case for several Ohio Army National Guardsmen who deployed to Puerto Rico Oct. 5 with the 285th Medical Company and have been providing medical services to citizens in San Juan and surrounding cities after Hurricane Maria.

Chance to Help

“The opportunity to help others is more important to me than continuing classes right now,” said Army Spc. Jacob Parker, a health care specialist who also attends Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, where he is working toward a degree in wildlife management. When he was given the option to go on the mission to Puerto Rico, Parker said he didn’t take long to make his decision to volunteer. “The same classes will be there in the spring; this opportunity to assist will not,” he said.

Army Pfc. Matthew Gamble, an ambulance aide attached to the 285th, is a 21-year-old junior at Youngstown State, majoring in exercise science. He said he eventually wants to work in the cardiac rehabilitation field. Gamble was a month and a half into the semester when he was given the option to join the mission. It took him only one day to decide to take the semester off. “The people in Puerto Rico need my help more than I need another semester of school,” he said.

Army Pfc. Spencer Smith is a 19-year-old freshman studying public and leadership management at Ohio State University in Columbus. Smith was only three weeks into his first semester when the call came to deploy as a health care specialist with the 285th.

“For me, the decision was easy, Ohio State wasn’t going anywhere,” Smith said. “But, I wanted to help people. This is what I joined the National Guard for.”

Parker, Gamble and Smith all said their professors were understanding and said they would work with them if they wanted to stay enrolled for the semester. However, Parker and Gamble both decided to take the semester off so they could focus entirely on the mission without the worry of schoolwork lingering. Smith decided to balance his class work while serving in Puerto Rico, showcasing the unique strengths of an Ohio citizen-soldier.

Not Alone

Though they each said the decision to volunteer for the Puerto Rico mission was easy, they still had concerns about leaving in the middle of a semester. Those concerns were silenced one morning before leaving when they were visited by Army Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr., the Ohio assistant adjutant general. Harris asked a group of 285th soldiers who among them had dropped out of college for the semester to go on the mission. About 10 people raised their hands.

“When I saw the amount of people on this mission who raised their hands when asked who took time off from school, I gained more respect for them. I felt less alone,” Smith said.

It is a sacrifice to take a semester off, but each of the Ohio Army National Guardsmen who volunteered to deploy in support of hurricane relief efforts put the mission first and said they consider their sacrifice to be minor in comparison to the importance of helping their fellow Americans in Puerto Rico -- in their greatest time of need.
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