Paul Hodge said that Fallujah, Iraq smelled like diesel fuel and death.
Driving down the road, it was dusty and hot, the ground less like sand and more like a fine powder. The sounds of gunfire and explosions rang in the distance, interspersed with the sound of prayers echoing from the countless mosques lining the side of the road.
â€œThe days were similar, but they were never quite the same,â€ Hodge said.
Hodge is a 30-year-old social work major at CSU and a former U.S. Marine whose story serves as a tribute to Veteranâ€™s Day, a time dedicated to the men and women in the armed forces.
He grew up in Perry Hall, Md. and enlisted in the Marines after graduating from a college in North Carolina in 2002. He was inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, saying he felt duty-bound to participate in the war he knew was coming.
â€œEvery serviceman who joined the armed forces after 9/11 did so knowing that they were going to war,â€ Hodge said. â€œTo me, this is one of the most profound statements of our generation of veterans. We werenâ€™t drafted. We simply wanted to be there to fight for our country.â€
Michael Shaner, a longtime friend of Hodgeâ€™s and the best man at his wedding, was one of Hodgeâ€™s many friends and family members concerned about him going overseas.
â€œIt was scary seeing a guy that I was such good friends with leave and go risk his life,â€ Shaner said.
As an infantryman who participated in more than 40 combat patrols, Hodge served in a unit in which 13 marines were killed and 130 wounded. Hodge himself was injured twice in Iraq and once in training. When he was injured in training, he was given the opportunity to leave the Marine Corp., but decided to go overseas anyway.
â€œItâ€™s a tragedy to know that these guys that I worked with have been killed, injured, or emotionally scarred because of their selfless contribution,â€ Hodge said. â€œThey put on a uniform so that others donâ€™t have to. They go and see terrible things and sometimes die, so that others donâ€™t have to. It brings me indescribable emotion.â€
Hodge was discharged from the Marines in 2006 at the request of his now-ex-wife. But at the time, Hodge didnâ€™t want to leave.Â
He had grown to enjoy what he was doing in Iraq. Part of it, he said, was the camaraderie between the men and women in uniform, which he said was deeper than blood. There are few things in life as powerful as coming to terms with oneâ€™s own mortality, he said.
â€œWhen Paul came back, he was an entirely different person,â€ Shaner said. â€œHe had a different perspective, and he had grown up a ton.â€
Â When Hodge returned to the United States, he began working for a roofing company but was laid off after 18 months. He was interested in helping other veterans, so he enrolled in CSUâ€™s School of Social Work, where he hopes to obtain his masterâ€™s degree.
â€œIt really says a lot about a person, when they give up years of their life for their country, and then they decide to go into social work and help out other veterans,â€ said Benjamin Rose, a friend of Hodgeâ€™s and a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne.
Â â€œThereâ€™s a dichotomy, sure, between my experiences and those of my peers. Sometimes itâ€™s difficult for me to communicate with them, for them to really know thatâ€™s going on,â€ Hodge said. â€œBut the Veterans Program Office here at CSU really made a huge difference in the transition and really took care of me.â€
Â Hodge has volunteered for the Veterans Program Office at CSU on multiple occasions and will serve as an announcer at the first annual Veterans Day 5k this Saturday.
Â â€œIn the end Iâ€™m just a regular guy. I havenâ€™t done anything particularly great. Iâ€™m average,â€ Hodge said. â€œIâ€™ve just served with some really great individuals. The veterans sacrifice and selflessness really made them some of the best of our generation.â€
Outdoor Life Reporter Allison Sylte can be reached at email@example.com.