The Marines to the College

Second-year Charlton Austin reflects on his seven months of military service in Iraq.
We tried not to do anything where it was on a schedule," Austin said. "We tried to go at different times of the day, unexpectedly, and by different routes."...

He left Iraq two years ago, but Cpl. Charlton Austin still has a Marine's haircut, shaved close on the sides and left thick on top. It's one of many things he carries with him from his seven months in Al Anbar province.

Before coming to Hyde Park, Austin, now a second-year and a Marine reservist, served as a truck driver and machine gunner with the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marine Regiment. Austin's unit supplied transportation and equipment to three Marine companies stationed around the war-torn city of Fallujah.

Austin enlisted at 18, shortly after graduating from high school. He wasn't interested in college and saw an opportunity to serve his country. He joined knowing he would be sent to Iraq.

As a truck driver, Austin participated in some of the most dangerous work for American troops in Iraq. Austin's unit helped patrol the streets of Fallujah, where their comrades searched for weapons caches and suspected insurgents. 

"We tried not to do anything where it was on a schedule, because basically the best way to hit a convoy is to hit it with an IED [improvised explosive device]," Austin said. "We tried to go at different times of the day, unexpectedly, and by different routes."

During patrols, Austin and his team would cordon off the street while the infantrymen searched nearby houses. This work brought Austin into contact with the residents of Fallujah, many of whom resented the Americans' presence.

"There was a lot of anger the whole time we were there," Austin said. "They would get frustrated with not being able to go places" because of American checkpoints.

Austin understood the civilians' frustration. "You would get annoyed too if every time you tried to come into your city somebody searched through your car," he said.  

Austin's truck-driving duties sometimes put him in the grisly position of being among the first on the scene after an insurgent attack, often while gunfire was still being exchanged. "There were a couple of times when we'd go out there and there would be, literally, body parts," Austin said.

Initially trained by the Marines as an electrician, Austin never told his wife about his dangerous work on convoys. Instead, he told her he was fixing electronics on a heavily fortified base. But when Austin received a Certificate of Commendation after his duty, which cited Austin's participation in more than 100 combat missions, she discovered the truth.

"She freaked," Austin said. "She was not happy."

Austin might never have found his way to the University of Chicago had he not served in Iraq. One of Austin's comrades lent him Milton Friedman's classic Capitalism and Freedom while abroad. Austin read on the back cover that Friedman taught at Chicago, and decided to learn more about the University.

Austin, now a "math or physics or I-don't-know major," said the transition from the Marines to the College was a challenge.

"It's hard to fit in sometimes," Austin said. He has made friends with younger college students, he said, but being married can make it difficult to socialize with them.

Still, Austin said that his time living near Caltech, his wife's alma mater, prepared him for the U. of C.'s culture. He also found the College's climate of academic freedom to be a relief after the rigidity of the Marine Corps. 

"It was liberating," Austin said of the change in setting. 

Though he enjoyed his time in the Marines, Austin doesn't plan to reenlist when his contract expires in June. He remains conflicted about the war he helped fight. While he feels certain the U.S. should withdraw its troops, he is saddened by the humanitarian situation in Iraq.

He is hesitant, however, to judge the policymakers who initiated the conflict. "There are things that I would change if I were on top, but I might quickly find that those changes weren't very good."

Tagged: Marines, Iraq