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Veterans Day takes on new meaning for Morrisville State College student who trades books, laptop for combat boots and two tours of duty

MORRISVILLE, N.Y.—Growing up, Matt Winnie never missed a Veterans Day parade. Standing on a curb to catch a better view, he valiantly waved a flag at veterans who marched past and exuberantly watched as jets flew in formation overhead tracing the sky with lines of white smoke.

The celebration has been a constant in the Tully native’s life. It still is. But over the years, it has taken on a new meaning.

As the nation pauses to honors its veterans Nov. 11, a day set aside to recognize those who have served in the Armed Forces, Winnie will be on the front line paying tribute.

This time—instead of watching them, he will stand beside them.

At age 23, Winnie is a two-time war veteran. He is also a student at Morrisville State College pursuing a degree in liberal arts and sciences: humanities and social science. A member of the Air National Guard, he voluntarily traded his books and laptop computer for combat boots and two tours of duty.

Serving has delayed Winnie’s educational plans, but it’s a sacrifice he was willing to make—and would gladly make again.

The Manlius resident joined the New York Air National Guard in August 2004 to earn money for college. He follows in the patriotic wake of a line of family members who served before him; an uncle who fought in the Army in Vietnam, two grandfathers who served in the Navy during the Korean War, a great grandfather who served in the Army during World War I and a great uncle who died in the battle of Iwo Jima.

Rich with military pride, a flag flew at his family’s home and Winnie became well-versed in the history of every war and the meaning behind purple ribbons and poppies.

A member of the 174th Security Forces (Fighter Wing) at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Winnie is a military police officer trained in sharp shooting and urban warfare. He’s part of the Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT), also called Urban Operations (UO), a version of a civilian SWAT team and the equivalent to the intermediate stage of a sniper.

The senior air man will be promoted to staff sergeant next month, adding a proud new stripe to his decorated desert camouflage uniform that hangs dignified at home, reminding him of all he has seen and how he has grown in a short time.

Each time Winnie returned from a tour, the world he returned to was different. So was he.

Barely out of basic training and in his last three weeks of his first semester at Morrisville State College, Winnie was deployed to Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean. Providing law enforcement and security, he served three months there then returned to college to complete the end of the semester he had missed.

College plans were put on hold again when his unit was called in Feb. 2007 for a tour in Iraq. The unit was diverted instead to a military base in Kyrgyzstan, a country located at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, approximately 25 miles from the Russian border.

Winnie spent six months in Kyrgyzstan patrolling a U.S. military base which Americans were encouraged not to leave due to political unrest and corruption which had the country on high alert.

Time spent overseas was an eye-opening experience to Winnie.

In Kyrgyzstan, he saw his first orphanages, roadside terrorists, anti-American protests and people living in deplorable conditions.

“There was hardly any infrastructure,” Winnie said, with eyes widening in disbelief. “There was trash everywhere and so many homeless elderly people and children.”

His unit was among those that collected clothing and distributed it to orphanages.

Today, Winnie is a different person, humbled, more disciplined and appreciative of all aspects of his life.

“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he said. “The things you miss the most when you are away are the basics—the things in my life I once took for granted, like heat, spending time with friends and having time to myself.”

Winnie takes life day-to-day and has a deeper appreciation of freedom, family and friends, the small things in life like hometown pizza, cable television, a comfortable bed and the chance to finish his education.

Readjusting from military rigors to civilian life and settling back into his life as a student has been one of his greatest challenges.

“It isn’t easy to pick up your life where it left off when you return and the rest of the world has progressed and has gone on with theirs,” he said.

His vision of veterans is a bit different than what it used to be.

“I used to think they were older guys dressed in uniform, but today when I look around, I see young people, men and women just like me.”

Winnie is looking forward to playing defense on the Morrisville State College men’s lacrosse team again this fall, completing his two-year degree and becoming a civilian police officer and history teacher some day. In the back of his mind always is a realization—of a war that is worlds away to most people—but never far away to him.

Winnie is the son of Cheryl Cronin of Tully, NY and Kevin Winnie, of Degrasse, NY.

History of Veterans Day

In legislation that was passed in 1938, Nov. 11 was dedicated to the cause of world peace and became celebrated and known as Armistice Day, a legal holiday that honored World War I veterans.

In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, the 83rd U.S. Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938, changing Armistice to Veterans. With the approval of this legislation on June 1, 1954, Nov. 11 became Veterans Day, a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

Morrisville State College offers more than 75 bachelor and 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 was 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 associate degree programs in accounting, business, computer systems technology, office administration, liberal arts transfer, nursing, early childhood, criminal justice and human services to south central New York residents and employers. Students may also apply coursework to other associate or bachelor degrees at the main campus.