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Three soldiers adjust to life, classes at Morrisville State College

MORRISVILLE, N.Y.—Mike Epstein, Nick Nicholson and Eric Hill have a new appreciation for the simple things in life—spending time with friends, watching television, sitting in a classroom, talking on their cell phones and ordering takeout food.

Nearly everything around them has taken on a new meaning, but there’s one thing they are especially grateful for, the long-awaited opportunity to go to college.

Their college plans were put on hold when they joined the military and were later deployed to support war efforts in different parts of the world. The war kept them away longer than they anticipated.

Recently, Epstein, Nicholson and Hill started a new chapter in their lives. They returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom in time to start classes at Morrisville State College this fall and earn a spot on the college’s Mustangs football team.

The three teammates, strangers before they met in college, are focusing on their education and leading normal lives, knowing there is a chance they could be called back to serve again at any time.

“I am happy to finally be able to go to school,” Epstein said. “It is something I thought about every day for the last four years. I am so grateful and thankful for this opportunity.”

On campus, all three are typical students who sometimes get overwhelmed with school work, who enjoy hanging out with friends and pull an occasional dorm prank. But on the inside, they have encountered experiences unlike the average student that have changed their lives.

The decision to join the military was financial for Epstein, Nicholson and Hill. All needed money for college so they enlisted during and shortly after high school. Nicholson had hoped to take courses while he served.

While most of their friends were getting acclimated to college life, the three teens were sleeping in bunkers and learning how to load weapons.

None ever anticipated the realm of their service to become what it did.

Army Sgt. Nicholson, 24, of Dale City, Virginia, was stationed in South Korea and Kuwait, and completed two tours of duty in different parts of Iraq. A motor transportation operator, his duties included driving 18-wheelers hauling ammunition, food, equipment and various supplies. He served five years, one of them an involuntary extension. His father also served in Iraq part of the time he was there although they were never able to see each other. Nicholson is enrolled in Morrisville’s computer information systems program.

Marine Lance Cpl. Epstein, 22, from Solon, Ohio, served in the infantry at bases in several countries including Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Haiti. His was last stationed at March Air Reserve Base, California, training soldiers who were going to Iraq. He is a student in Morrisville’s sports, nutrition and fitness management program.

Army Spc. Hill, 21, of Cattaraugus, New York, a third-shop track vehicle mechanic, was stationed in Germany and Iraq. He is enrolled in the college’s diesel technology program.

For all three men, their military service began with routine missions that changed shortly after 9/11. Nicholson and Hill both ended their service in Iraq.

On a daily basis, Epstein, Nicholson and Hill were faced with the frightening reality that they didn’t have to be in combat to have their lives threatened.

‘“Combat’ is a loose term when you suffer casualties at the hands of others,” Epstein said. “I saw my share of action and real-world issues. There is nothing more real-world than being shot at.”

Nicholson escaped serious injury when his convoy was ambushed after it took a wrong turn while picking up broken-down Army vehicles in Iraq. His close friend was killed and seven other soldiers were seriously wounded in the attack.

For Nicholson, it was the first time he had fired a gun in a combat situation, the first time he had experienced a war casualty first-hand, and the moment the war became real to him.

Epstein’s realization came at a different time.

“As a Marine, you are constantly trained and work up to deploy and you hear stories from friends and other Marines about what goes on, but I guess it comes to life when you step off the plane, at least that is how it was for me,” he said.

While the three soldiers’ units all encountered different experiences, some of their emotional experiences were similar—difficulty being away from home, family and friends.

All three spent their 21st birthday in the field. Avid football fans, they missed the Super Bowl and weren’t able to cheer on athletes in the 2004 Winter Olympics with the rest of the world.

Among the greatest obstacles they faced were being away from home and missing family and friends during the holidays.

“I tried not to think about things like holidays and birthdays because it lowered my sprits,” Nicholson said.

Other things were more difficult to forget no matter how hard they tried.

The war opened their eyes to countries swarmed with poverty and injustices in other parts of the world, things that made them long even more for home.

Once, Nicholson’s unit traveled through a town where little children were without shoes, playing in the street wearing dirty, tattered clothes. Another time, his unit traveled through a site where an attack had just taken place and trucks and tanks that had been blown up were still smoking.

To keep their spirits uplifted, Epstein, Nicholson and Hill spent their free time playing cards and telling stories with fellow soldiers; many were about what was waiting for them at home. Letters and packages from home were lifelines.
Throughout everything, fellow soldiers became their greatest source of strength, but encouragement also came from unlikely places, strangers who sent cards and care packages, gestures that meant more to Nicholson than he could find words to describe.

Inspiration came in other forms, too; hope, prayer, and will.

“My best source of inspiration was believing in myself and my abilities and knowing what I wanted to ultimately accomplish in the future,” Epstein said. “Knowing the hard times would end the day I got out was all the inspiration any of us ever needed.”

It wasn’t all bad. There were many good times, too.

“Some of the experiences stay with you; the meaningful ones, the tough missions, long patrols, good times with friends on liberty, and experiencing new cultures and countries,” Epstein said.

The friendships he has made are among his most cherished memories.

“What stands out most to me about the time I served in the Marine Corps is the camaraderie,” Epstein said. “All we had was each other for so many holidays and we shared so many hard times and that is still very important to me.”

Despite their different experiences and their involvement changing them in different ways, some things are steadfast. They have a deep appreciation freedom, family and friends and the small things in life.

“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” Epstein said. “I cherish the time I spend relaxing with friends and family, doing school work, having time to myself, and playing football.”

Above all, they encourage the public to support the U.S. troops, no matter what their view is on the war.

“It is everyone’s right in this country to have his or her own opinion of the war, but it is also important to remember those who shed blood, sweat and tears every day they serve(d),” Epstein said.

“There are so many ways to show support,” Nicholson said. “You seem forgotten when you are over there. You can send care packages or letters.”

“When someone sends you something that reminds you of home, it’s unlike anything,” Hill said.

While they are concentrating on their studies, Epstein, Nicholson and Hill are also focusing on the end of their football season. Hill is a starting fullback, Nicholson is a reserve defensive back and Epstein is a reserve wide receiver.

The war is something they hardly ever talk about with each other, a conscious effort to lead a normal life once again and rediscover the things they went without for so long.

“The things you miss the most when you are away are mostly the bare essentials—having something fun to do when you have some down time, calling home, air conditioning, “real” food, the Internet, mostly just the American culture,” Epstein said.

“I missed just about everything,” Hill said, “including my family, girlfriend and friends.”

Being home has never felt or looked so good to each of them.

“When I looked out the window of the plane at the trees and grass as we were landing (in the U.S.), I was amazed at how green and alive everything looked to me,” Nicholson said. “I realized how lucky I am.”

They feel fortunate in other ways, too. They will be spending one of their first holidays reunited with their families—Thanksgiving.

Morrisville State College offers 12 bachelor degrees and a wide variety of associate degrees and options. Considered to be one of the most technologically advanced colleges in the nation for its ThinkPad University program and wireless technology initiative, the college recently became the first in the nation to comprehensively replace landlines in residence halls with individual cellular phones. Morrisville State College was also chosen as one of the top five colleges in the nation for campus activities by Campus Activities magazine. The Morrisville State College Norwich Campus offers programs in business, transfer, technologies, liberal arts/education transfer, and nursing to Chenango County area residents and employers.