But that distance seemed irrelevant to many in the Boston College community as they, along with the rest of the nation and the world, followed events in Iraq.
(Above) Hours before the war in Iraq began on March 19, students, administrators, faculty and staff gathered for a prayer service in the Quad. (Below) The conflict has undergraduates in the University's ROTC program like John McCabe and Laura Sanchez contemplating their future. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)
Students in the University's Reserve Officer Training Corps contemplated the prospect of a call to duty, an eventuality that began to seem far more imaginable than when they first came to BC.
Priests in the University's Jesuit Community who had once walked the streets of Baghdad and taught at a school nicknamed "BC on the Tigris" revisited bittersweet memories of a fascinating, yet tragic, land.
Months-long tension and anticipation over the possibility of war inexorably gave way, sometimes in unexpectedly cathartic fashion, as members of the BC community - whether for, against, or undecided on military action - now began to grasp the reality of war.
Privately as well as collectively, many on the Heights turned to faith and prayer, calling upon the Almighty for strength, courage, wisdom and hope in an uncertain time. For, as one Jesuit remarked, "Only God knows how it will turn out."
On March 19, with war looming - the beginning only hours away, as it turned out - the Office of Campus Ministry invited the BC community to attend a noon prayer service in the Quad. It was simply an opportunity, Campus Ministry Director Rev. James Erps, SJ, told the crowd, to come together in contemplation.
As across the rest of the campus, Fr. Erps said, those who had gathered did not all hold the same view of the Iraq situation and its potential implications. But in this place, at this time, he said, such differences were laid aside, so that all could pray for those whose lives would be most affected by the conflict and its aftermath, such as military personnel and their families and the people of Iraq.
"We unite in the bonds of love," said Fr. Erps to the crowd, silent and solemn on a still, cool early-spring day, "and in the hope that some day all nations may live in harmony and peace."
Rita Kostiuk, a freshman from Milford, Conn., suddenly found herself called upon to read from The Beatitudes. Her voice faltered as she progressed through the familiar phrases - "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted"; "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness"; "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
When Kostiuk reached "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God," she broke down and wept, and others in the crowd also shed or blinked back tears.
After the service, her composure regained, Kostiuk said she had not come to the Quad expecting to read, and in fact had been uncertain of attending at all. "But God works in mysterious ways," she said, smiling. "I guess I felt drawn here, just wanting to be with everyone."
Four members of the Boston College Jesuit Community who taught at Baghdad College before the Jesuits were expelled from Iraq: (L-R) Rev. Charles Healey, SJ; Rev. Neil Decker, SJ; Rev. Robert Farrell, SJ; (seated) Rev. James Morgan, SJ.
"I don't know how to put it all into words," she said, and then glanced in the direction of the lectern where she had spoken several minutes earlier.
"But, well, maybe I did."
'Too much on me'
For Electrician John Robishaw, the war in Iraq has brought mixed emotions, fatherly pride mingled with fatherly concern. Robishaw's son, Erik, is a sergeant with the 1st battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division that is currently operating in Iraq.
"He's been in the service three years and been to war three times," said Robishaw. "This is too much on me."
There are others called to war, along with Erik Robishaw, who have ties to the BC community. Patrol Officer Santos Perez, a reservist in the Air Force was activated shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has remained on active duty since them. In January, Kyla Johnson '03, a resident assistant enrolled in the Lynch School of Education and a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, was called to active duty.
Patrol Officer Vitario Sena is a gunnery sergeant select in the United States Marine Corps Reserve whose unit has not yet been activated, although he expects to be called soon.
"You have 72 hours to get your whole life in order before you ship out," he said. "It's not the easiest way to live."
Patrol Officer William Murphy, meanwhile, recently welcomed his wife back from her service in Kuwait with the Army Reserves.
Watching the war in Iraq unfold "is 10 times more meaningful," for Laura Sanchez and her fellow ROTC cadet John McCabe. But, she adds, "you have to make yourself stay in your lane, as it's not quite immediate for us just yet."
"It's the same old story these days," said the elder Robishaw. "He calls and he can't tell us where he is but that he's doing okay. Then I watch CNN.
"No wonder I'm getting gray hair."
The past weekend was particularly difficult for John Robishaw, as reports came from Kuwait of an attack on a 101st Airborne camp. One soldier was killed and 14 were injured when an American soldier allegedly attacked his own unit.
Robishaw was out of the house when the story was first reported but received a call from his wife who was distraught over the news. After more details emerged, the Robishaws realized their son was serving in a different brigade than the one that had been attacked.
"We were more relieved than I could tell you," said Robishaw.
Despite the constant concern for his son, Robishaw is convinced that the use of military force is the appropriate course of action.
"Someone has got to stand up to this monster, Hussein," he said. "I am absolutely behind this war."
'We understand the reality'
The reality of the war in Iraq is especially profound for the 36 students in the Boston College Army ROTC unit, most of whom have made a commitment to enter military service after graduation.
L-R) Sarah Kuchinos, Michelle Naujeck and Soula Pefkaros, all seniors, at the March 19 prayer service held in the Quad.
"There's not a lot of arm-chair generalship [in the classroom]," Tashiro said. "We're not trying to become instant military experts, because obviously none of us are. But we do talk about what is going on."
Tashiro said that military science instruction at the undergraduate level largely revolves around leadership skills, historical leadership examples, physical training plus the occasional discussions of current military operations.
"We do try to keep the cadets focused on what's important and what's immediate for all of them, and that is that they are students first and ROTC cadets second," Tashiro said. "A lot of what is going on is still quite a bit away for them."
"We understand the reality of what we are doing," says Cadet John McCabe '03, a psychology major from Berlin, Conn. "Every one of us in ROTC is proud of our country and ready to do what the country needs us to do."
McCabe says that he sensed a wave of patriotism emerge in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "It was very tangible to me," he said, "and it started to have importance with the general public."
McCabe, who is the Cadet Battalion Commander for the combined ROTC units at Boston College and Northeastern University, will join the Army's Medical Service Corps after being commissioned a second lieutenant during Commencement Week in May. He will then attend the Army Basic Officer Course at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., before receiving a multi-year duty assignment that could place him almost anywhere in the world.
ROTC graduates generally have a four-year active duty commitment, followed by four years in reserve status.
Junior Laura Sanchez, a communication and international studies major from Elmwood Park, NJ, looks forward to receiving her commission next year and serving in the active military.
"Sometimes it's like a sports team," she said, "when it seems like all you do is practice and never get a chance to play. You want to be able to show what you have trained for."
Watching the war in Iraq unfold on television has been an eye-opening experience for Sanchez and her fellow ROTC cadets, she says. "For us, it is 10 times more meaningful. But, you have to make yourself stay in your lane, as it's not quite immediate for us just yet.
"Still, you have to support your leaders 100 per cent."
Sanchez, who speaks fluent Spanish and is studying Italian, hopes to serve in the Army's Military Intelligence branch after she receives her BC diploma. She will spend part of the upcoming summer in the ROTC leadership course at Fort Lewis, Wash., followed by a short instructional tour of duty with a transportation unit of the Army's 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.
Sanchez agrees that BC students hold a wide array of opinions on the Middle East conflict. "We do see some students protesting the war, but most other students simply support us as being students and doing what we have to do."
She says that she knows several recent ROTC graduates who now serve with combat units in the Persian Gulf region. "We wish for peace as well," she said, "and to get everyone back home."
The scenes unfolding in Iraq evoke bittersweet memories for members of the Boston College Jesuit Community who taught at old Baghdad College, a Jesuit high school considered the best in Iraq until Saddam Hussein's Baath Party expelled the Society of Jesus in 1969.
"I watch it on TV and I well up," said Rev. James Morgan, SJ, who taught for 16 years at the school staffed by Jesuits from the New England Province and nicknamed "BC on the Tigris."
"These are emotional days: in a way happy days, but in a way, unhappy days," said Fr. Morgan, recalling the friendships he had struck with Iraqis and the suffering they have endured. Asked if he welcomed a change of regime in Iraq, he said: "I'm not going to oppose it."
"Only God knows how it will turn out," he said.
It has been more than 40 years since Rev. Charles Healey, SJ, taught English at Baghdad College as a Jesuit scholastic.
"You watch with sadness that it had to come to this," said Fr. Healey, now a professor of theology at Blessed Pope John XXIII Seminary, who taught in Iraq from 1959-62.
"You hope it can be resolved quickly, for the safety of our troops and the Iraqi people."
The Jesuits had operated Baghdad College since 1932 and Al Hikma University since 1956 when the Baath regime seized the schools in 1968 and expelled the order from Iraq.
Baghdad College had been founded by the Jesuits at the request of Pope Pius XI as a school for Christians, but by the 1960s its enrollment of some 1,200 students was half Muslim, the high school having the reputation as the finest in the city. Many of its students went on to become doctors and engineers.
A reunion weekend in Toronto in July 2002 drew 20 Jesuit former teachers and hundreds of alumni. The attendees at the business meeting alone included 70 medical doctors.
Fr. Morgan produced a copy of the school's 1965 yearbook, Al-Iraqi, its photos of various clubs including shots of the Baghdad College baseball team. The priest, who was director of the Prayer Apostolate of the Archdiocese of Babylon, is pictured in the yearbook with the student members of the Sacred Heart League.
"It was a good school," said Fr. Morgan, who taught English and religion at Baghdad College, first as a Jesuit scholastic from 1949-52, and then from 1956-69. "It was my idea of what St. Ignatius called us to do - to go into the whole world.
"I found the Arab people in Iraq very hospitable and generous toward us," he said. "The people in Baghdad loved us."
He described the greeting one Jesuit biology teacher on the Baghdad College faculty received one day in the 1960s on happening upon an anti-American demonstration in downtown Baghdad. "The protesters stopped and smiled and said, 'Hello, Father,'" he recalled.
Rev. Neil Decker, SJ, taught at Baghdad College for three years as a Jesuit scholastic from 1952-55, then returned to the faculty to teach English and mathematics from 1960-69. After the expulsion of the Jesuits, Fr. Decker served as a chaplain at several hospitals in Massachusetts. Now he assists the treasurer of the BC Jesuit Community.
But the pull of Baghdad remains strong for Fr. Decker, as it does for other Jesuits who taught there.
"The ones I know, including myself, would still be over there now," he said. "It was a great work. We had 50 New England Jesuits between the two campuses." The school regularly sent graduates to MIT and other top colleges, he said.
Thus the sorrow with which he has watched the sufferings visited upon the Iraqi people, he said. When he arrived, the country was a relatively tranquil place, governed by a Hashemite king and a bureaucracy of well-trained civil servants, he said. But a succession of military juntas has followed: The general who overthrew the king in 1958 was himself later put before a firing squad on live television, Fr. Decker said.
"If they had some stability in the country, with all the oil below the surface, they would have had plenty of money to take care of the people," he said.
"I feel a most acute sadness for the people in the area. They have no freedom whatsoever, and they have a brutal, brutal regime there - shades of World War II and Hitler."
Rev. Robert Farrell, SJ, part-time faculty member in English and Advancing Studies, taught English at Baghdad College as a Jesuit scholastic from 1958-61. His memories are "very happy," recalling Jesuits who wore pith helmets in the sun, and cassocks of khaki that didn't show the dust. But he also remembers "sleeping on the roof, and hearing machine guns 'rat-a-tat-tatting' in the distance as I woke up one morning.
"In the revolution on July 14 in 1958, the military had wiped out the royal family. I was there in a time the communists were trying to take over - the Russians and Chinese had got in there. Others were trying to join the United Arab Republic under Nasser.
"There was a lot of tension when I was there. Every night on TV they had the 'People's Court,' show trials for the old regime, with the accused in cages." One of his students was the son of Iraq's former United Nations ambassador: "His father had been condemned on TV the night before, but he came to class the next day."
In the current crisis, Fr. Farrell said, he is reminded of a remark made to him by a Baghdad College junior following a campus melee between Reds and Arabists in the late 1950s.
"A group of Commie thugs had beat up some seniors who were with Nasser," he recalled. "I said, 'Isn't it too bad we can't have peace, even here at Baghdad College?'
"The student said, 'Believe me, Father - it has been this way since the beginning.'"
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