Features

Students delay studies to serve

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

At a time when most 18-year-olds are anxiously awaiting their college acceptances, some students find a different kind of letter in the mail – one calling them to serve in their national militaries. 

Of the over 90 countries represented at Brown, at least 25 require some form of military service from their male citizens. The Office of International Student and Scholar Services is informed when international students take time off to complete military service but does not keep track of the number of students who enlist, said the office’s director Elke Breker

Not all students must interrupt their college education to serve. Depending on the country, male citizens can either defer enlistment until after they have completed their degree or serve immediately upon reaching the age of conscription, usually 18 or 20 years of age. 

Clifton Yeo ’14 chose to complete his mandatory two years of service with the Singaporean military before coming to Brown. He has also accepted a scholarship from the military, which provides him with four years of funding at Brown in exchange for six more years of service after he graduates. Joining the military straight after high school can be a difficult transition, he said. 

“A common mind-set would be ‘Oh my goodness, why am I wasting two years of my life having to do national service for my country. … All the girls are going straight to college and carrying on with their lives,'” he said. “It tends to be pretty negative.”  

Personal time becomes precious when you’re in camp training Mondays to Fridays, or Mondays to Saturdays, he said. 

But when the initial negativity subsides, the experience can become incredibly formative, Yeo said. The sense of camaraderie gained by enduring tough conditions is difficult to replicate in civilian life, he said. Being responsible for others and living on his own prepared him for college, especially as an international student living far from home. 

“It was really the cliche boys-to-men thing where suddenly you just grow up,” he said. 

 

Marching men 

For Andrew Choi ’13, college dorm living isn’t all that different from life in the barracks. Choi spent two years at Tufts University before he took leave to serve as a translator in the Korean military, after which he transferred to Brown. He was positioned at a U.S. Army base, where the conditions were probably better than for most other conscripts, he said. Choi had a single room in a suite-style living arrangement and ate meals in a dining hall. 

But days started at 6 a.m. with an hour-long group run, after which breakfast was served, and he reported to the office by 9 a.m. Soldiers have to be ready to execute orders handed down by higher officers at any time, he said. Conscripts start out at the bottom and work their way up the ranks, typically reaching the sergeant-status by the end of their two years of mandatory service.  

The day-to-day experience of a conscripted soldier depends on the unit he’s placed in, said Alon Galor ’15, who plans to serve in the Israeli Army after he graduates. Soldiers are also on-call for missions to guard the Israeli border. In elite units, access to cell phones and the Internet is very limited, and typical days can last up to 15 or 16 hours. 

“They’re having an awful time for the most part – they’re away from home for really long periods of time,” he said of soldiers’ military training. “But for the most part they know how important it is, and they’re very proud of being in the army.”

 

Call of duty 

Galor’s situation is somewhat unique – he was born in the U.S. but lived in Israel until he was 12, when his family returned to Providence. Though he is currently considered a “part-time (Israeli) citizen” and can only live in Israel four months out of the year until he turns 26, he will immediately be granted full citizenship if he serves in the military.  

And he very nearly did – Galor enlisted just weeks before starting his freshman year, but a last-minute decision by his parents led him to defer and come to Brown instead. 

Galor’s determination to join the military comes from his commitment to protecting the existence of a Jewish state, especially given recent political turmoil with countries like Iran. Israel and Iran’s historically volatile relationship has recently escalated to include threats of nuclear war. 

Galor said he understands the potential threat to his life, but remains committed to the idea of joining a combat unit rather than accepting an intelligence position. 

“Someone has to die, someone has to risk their life, why should it be someone else rather than me?” Galor said. “We’re both human, and we’re both fighting for the same cause.”

 

A veteran perspective

Yeo took an interest in American military policy after taking SOC 1871N: “Military Health: The Quest for Healthy Violence” last semester, where he said he enjoyed being able to apply his real-world experiences in an academic setting. He received an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award to research American veteran health with the class’s instructor, R. Tyson Smith, postdoctoral fellow in sociology. 

“It really opened my eyes to military service beyond Singapore – I really just have the utmost respect for the veterans in the U.S.,” Yeo said. “They are the ones who have really gone to real combat, they are the ones who have seen all the violence and all the horrors of war – realities that I fortunately didn’t have to see.”

At Brown, the Office of Veteran Services and Commissions opened earlier this year to help both national and international veterans adjust to university life. Still, Galor said he finds that general national support for veterans is much stronger in Israel compared to the U.S. Galor added that most people respect his commitment to join the military, but he recognizes that many of his peers have different priorities. 

Yeo said his own time in the military changed his perspective on college life. “Coming to Brown, I wasn’t really into the drinking, partying, socializing scene,” he said.

“It’s actually quite good for the young people to take some time off and serve in the army,” said Choi, who found the military to be a beneficial break from academia. “It makes you a lot more appreciative of what you have.” 

 

 

A previous version of this article stated that soldiers alternate time guarding the Israeli border. In fact, soldiers are on-call for missions to guard the border. The article also quoted Alon Galor ’15 as saying, “They’re having an awful time for the most part” regarding soldiers’ sentiments toward military training. The quotation does not reflect soldiers’ attitudes toward their overall experience.