A Journey from Soldier to Student

Back from war, Erik Robishaw is happy to be in the classroom

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

The worst part about combat isn't when the bullets and shrapnel are whizzing by your head at deadly velocity, says Erik Robishaw.

The worst part isn't kicking down doors and hunting the men who are hunting you, he says.

Electrician John Robishaw and his son, Erik, now enrolled in the College of Advancing Studies after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Photo by Lee Pellegirni)
The worst part isn't even knowing that your platoon was just hours from being ambushed by Iraqi soldiers, says Robishaw.

"The worst part is when you're pulling guard duty and there's nothing going on and it's just you and your thoughts," says the newly minted College of Advancing Studies student, who returned home to Marshfield from Iraq in August after serving four years in the US Army with the 101st Airborne.

"All of that other stuff gets you pumped up," he said. "But it's when there's nothing going on that you start to realize you don't know what's next. That's the worst part."

Erik Robishaw, 22, is the son of BC Electrician John Robishaw, a father who has watched with pride, awe and a rapidly growing population of gray hairs as his son's military career took him to combat operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Not knowing was the worst part for me, too," says the elder Robishaw.

For security reasons, US soldiers operating in war zones aren't allowed to reveal their locations and, because of that, they don't always have the opportunity to call or write home. As a result, families like the Robishaws are left hoping and waiting for some word from their sons and daughters serving in harm's way.

On Tuesday, Erik Robishaw spent his first Veteran's Day at home in three years, joining family and friends in honoring the men and women of the United States armed forces -- including Erik and the comrades he served with, and mourned for, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The troops need to know the nation supports them," says Erik. "They need to hear it."

For the Robishaw family, the past six months hasn't been the easiest as news from Iraq is often stories of Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

"It was torture knowing he was there and we're so happy he's home," says the elder Robishaw. "Who would have thought when he entered the military out of high school four years ago that he would have been in combat three times?"

Answers Erik, "We knew on Sept. 11 that we were going somewhere and things were going to be different."

The younger Robishaw takes his experiences as a matter of course - and luck. He graduated at the top of his class from the Army's air assault school at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky and was assigned to the 1st battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, a storied unit known as the "Rakkasans" which made a name for itself while fighting on the battlefields of World War II.

Following a relatively calm guard mission in Kosovo in 2000, the unit headed to Afghanistan not long after terrorists flew jet liners in to the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

While there, Robishaw and his unit were charged with the dangerous task of clearing caves of Taliban and Al-Quaeda forces.

"It wasn't all that much fun," recalls Erik with a grimace.

After Afghanistan, Erik, who was promoted to sergeant, and the Rakkasans returned to the US for an intense period of training leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We knew we were going in to Iraq," recalls Erik. "We just didn't know when."

Their time would come in April, soon after the war began.

"We sat for a long time in Kuwait, just waiting for some news," said Erik. "You really can't let your thoughts get to you, but they did."

After receiving orders to head into Iraq, the Rakkasans headed north to Baghdad and met occasional resistance from fleeing troops still loyal to ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Lady Luck enlisted with the Rakkasans a few times during the operation. In one instance the Americans came upon Iraqi soldiers swimming in a river. After arresting and interrogating the men the US soldiers learned the chilling truth about their enemies' mission.

"They were in that area to ambush us," recalled Erik, who said the Rakkasans were operating ahead of schedule by several hours and were able to surprise the Iraqis.

"If we'd been any later it would have been hell," he said.

After the Rakkasans pushed north to the outskirts of Baghdad, luck befell the Americans once again.

While on patrol one night Erik and some others came upon some Iraqis in a car, past curfew. After searching the men and the vehicle, interrogating them, and coordinating with another US unit who made a similar find in another part of the city, the Americans realized the Iraqis were up to no good.

"We figured out that they were planning to rob a bank," said Erik. "It was a good score for us."

"They gave him the Army Commendation Medal for that," said John Robishaw, speaking up for his humble son. "It was one of two medals he won in Iraq."

If, as the old saying goes, good things come in threes, then luck would befall Erik Robishaw once again, this time in the form of Woods College of Advancing Studies administrators Rev. James Woods, SJ and Student Services Coordinator Cheryl Wright.

As the Operation Iraqi Freedom moved from its combat phase to its current mode, the Army was telling some soldiers whose enlistments were ending that their duties were being extended - unless they were registered for school back in the United States.

"I was all set to start at BC and told my [commanding officer] that I would miss school if I stayed on," said Erik, whose enlistment was slated to end in October, but was still owed 60 days worth of leave time.

"He told me I had to have some forms sent over to prove I was coming to BC," said Erik, who got his hands on a satellite phone and called his father.

"I went right in to Cheryl and she went to Fr. Woods with the paperwork," said John. "She was amazing and I'm thankful to them both.

"In a nano-second I e-mailed those forms from the O'Neill Computing Facility all the way to northern Iraq," recalled John.

The elder Robishaw spent a week awaiting word from his son, all the while not knowing if the e-mail was received and what his status was.

During that time, it was later learned, four soldiers in Erik's unit were killed in a grenade attack.

"Finally he called," said John, the relief still evident in his voice.

John says he has seen changes in his son that he wasn't expecting.

"He's always got his nose in a book and you can see he's really learned a lot of discipline and what it takes to be a leader," said John.

"That's stuff you can't learn in a book."

"But he's already going back to his old ways," laughs the father. "He's already leaving his dirty laundry around the house again."


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