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ND graduates: from NROTC to Iraq occupancy

Kate Antonacci | Friday, September 30, 2005

Captain John McGurty flew 200 miles from his Al-Asad Airbase in Western Iraq to the Forward Aerial Refueling Point (FARP) Korean Village in the Al-Anbar province of Iraq for the Sept. 13 promotion of Joe Gagliardi to the rank of 1st Lieutenant of Marines.

Each officer gets to choose his or her promoting officer, as long as the individual is at least one rank higher than the person being promoted, Gagliardi said.

For Gagliardi, a 2003 Notre Dame graduate, the choice was simple. He chose McGurty, a 1974 graduate of the University also serving overseas, to pin on his new silver bars – exactly two years after Gagliardi’s own father pinned on his gold bars in Wash ington, D.C.

“I am a Marine Corps Officer and Captain McGurty is an officer in the United States Navy, so my promotion was unique in that you do not often see inter-service promotion ceremonies,” Gagliardi said.

Gagliardi met McGurty, an emergency medical physician in the 4th Marine Air Wing in the Reserve, through McGurty’s youngest daughter, Katie. Gagliardi was in the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (NROTC) program at Notre Dame with Katie McGurty, almost three years before the two men were deployed to the same area of operations in Western Iraq.

“Captain McGurty and I remained close over the next few years and he remains to this day someone I greatly respect and was proud to have as my promoting officer,” Gagliardi said. “It was definitely a huge coincidence, however, that we both happen to deploy to the same [Area of Oper-ations] at the same time.”

The men were also stationed near Navy Commander Mark Dobbertien, a general surgeon and 1980 Notre Dame graduate, who, before his recent departure from Iraq, was kept busy in his field operating facility at Korean Village, Gagliardi said.

“Dr. McGurty [flies] around the region often in order to treat emergency casuaties both American and Iraqi,” Gagliardi said. “My job mostly consists of, along with my Marines, installing, operating and maintaining a tactical communications architecture that supports internal, external and ground to air communications.”

Life in Iraq

Both men graduated from the University – 29 years apart – after participating in the NROTC Program.

While Gagliardi said NROTC prepared him for what was to come as a U.S. Marine Corps officer, he said that no amount of training could prepare him for the sights of Iraq.

“Life in a combat theater is unique. The living conditions are certainly Spartan by most barometers,” McGurty said. “For instance, [I] have not had running water for days here with the insurgents damaging water supply from the Euphrates to the camp.”

Gagliardi has been stationed in Iraq since mid-July and plans to return home in April 2006. McGurty has been in Iraq for nearly seven months and will be released from active duty back to the Navy reserve in late November and will return to civilian Emergency Medical practice in New York.

“I have never felt so alive as I have leading these Marines as we all make our small contribution to the causes of both ridding this country of those who would seek to see these people continue to be oppressed, as well as ridding the world as a whole of those who wish to spread terror while taking innocent lives to further their maniacal cause,” Gagliardi said.

Gagliardi said he and fellow Notre Dame graduates are able to distract themselves from their harsh environment by discussing Notre Dame football, remembering the beauty of the grotto and trading stories from time spent on campus.

“The bond is unique, eternal and absolutely embodies the essence of the Notre Dame mystique under the direction of Our Lady and Our Lord,” McGurty said.

Gagliardi said that the values and moral barometer instilled in him during his time at Notre Dame bring him great strength as he serves in Iraq.

Keeping Notre Dame alive

“Over here, there is a special bond that exists among all service members making the same sacrifices away from friends, family and home to do our small part in service to the country we call home and that bond is definitely intensified between graduates of Our Lady’s university,” Gagliardi said.

To keep the Notre Dame spirit alive overseas, Gagliardi brought a few mementos.

“I, of course, brought out my new ‘The Shirt’ for the start of the Charlie Weis football era, as well as two Notre Dame flags that adorn my small living area here at Korean Village,” he said.

Gagliardi said he also painted an entire wall of his space to read “Go Irish,” but had to use green and gold paint because there was no blue paint to be found on the camp.

“Captain McGurty also passed on a 1988 ND football championship banner which I have hanging in my room as well,” Gagliardi said. “Most importantly, though, I brought out my No. 3 Darius Walker ND football jersey so that every Saturday night/Sunday morning – in the wee-hours of the morning if I am lucky enough to catch an Irish football telecast on the Armed Forces Network – I can let everyone know who I am pulling for.”

McGurty has similarly decorated his area in Iraq with Notre Dame memorabilia.

“My medical office is adorned as an ND shrine starting with a flag on the outside and posters on the inside. The words to the Alma Mater are posted,” he said.

Notre Dame is still an active part of McGurty’s life and he was disappointed that he could not return to campus last spring for the graduation and commissioning of his daughter Katie.

“The one event I so greatly miss not attending during this deployment was my Katie’s graduation from Notre Dame, and commissioning,” McGurty said. “For years, I truly dreamed about commissioning her as a fellow Naval Officer.”

In McGurty’s place, Commanding Brig. Gen. Dave Papak, United States Naval Aacademy ’76, performed the honors and commissioned Katie at the Grotto, McGurty said.

“We are proud to call ourselves warriors, members of the armed forces fighting in the war against those who would seek to bring terror onto our home soil, but we are also proud to call ourselves Domers, members of a great and proud fraternity and sorority of men and women whose pride in both our country and in Notre Dame runs just as deep,” Gagliardi said.

From basketball to the battlefields

Also serving in Iraq is Army engineer Capt. Kevin Kuwik, an assistant basketball coach at Ohio University and a 1996 Notre Dame graduate.

Kuwik said he was shocked when he received a letter last September calling him off the Individual Ready Serve (IRR) list last September – primarily because he had just put in his discharge paperwork.

“Instead it was activation orders. After a series of train-ups back in the states, I was assigned and mobilized with the 113th Engineer Battalion, a National Guard unit headquartered in Gary, IN,” Kuwik said. “We arrived in Kuwait on Dec. 19 and flew up into Mosul, Iraq on Jan. 6.”

Kuwik expects to leave Iraq in December and hopes to be home for Christmas.

“There are a lot of ways to describe my year in Iraq, but probably the most appropriate is ‘long.’ There are truly no days off,” Kuwik said. “Your choices for clothing are simply your desert camouflage uniform or the Army Physical Fitness Uniform – no civilian clothes allowed.”

Despite these challenges, Kuwik said he will look back on this experiences as one of the most positive things he has ever done.

“The camaraderie with the fellow soldiers is amazing and we will leave Iraq knowing that we played a crucial role in the success of last January’s elections and in the development of democracy in this country,” Kuwik said.

Alumni network

McGurty, Gagliardi, Dobbertien and Kuwik are not the only Notre Dame grads who have served in Iraq.

“At one point [this summer], all three of the U.S. Marines that graduated from the NROTC program at ND in 2003 were all deployed to Iraq at the same time,” Gagliardi said, adding that he was in contact with these men, 1st Lt. Ed O’Connell and 1st Lt. John Pfunter, while deployed in combat ones around Iraq.

“I had many visits with Eddie O’Connell – a classmate of Joe’s and roommate at Cherry Point, NC. I ate chow with Eddie several times and brought him up to the squadron for chow once as well,” McGurty said. “His dad, Ed O’Connell, and I were classmates from the class of 1974. So the ND family continues to unfold here in Iraq.”

Army ROTC established a Notre Dame Alumni club of Iraq last June, after the idea was mentioned by Chuck Lennon, executive director of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, at the ROTC retreat in June 2004. With the help of Bethany Heet, director of International Alumni Clubs, the Iraq club has grown significantly.

“There is my ND Alumni Association stickers on the window of my [Container Housing Unit] – basically a metal box that I live in,” Kuwik said. “I had read about [the Alumni Club] in the Alumni Association’s magazine last year, so I got in touch with Suzanne Inzerillo, the founder, via email when I got here. Only with ND would you find something as impromptu as this so far away from South Bend.”