The average college student finishes an undergraduate education in four years. Charlie Porter will take 13 years.
Porter, a prospective junior at GW, began his freshman year in 1999. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Porter completed his sophomore year, left school and joined the Army at age 22.
“I’m glad I did it. It would’ve been more prudent to finish school first, but it was an adventure,” he said.
Porter, who later became Sergeant Porter, enlisted in the Army in August 2002, seven months before the U.S. declared war on Iraq. Though Porter originally wanted to serve in Afghanistan, he was first deployed to Korea from November 2003 to December 2004, where his long-range surveillance work earned him an Army Achievement Medal and a Korean Defense Service Medal.
Porter has served two tours in Iraq: one from April to November 2005 as part of a human intelligence team and another during a 15-month surge from June 2007 to September 2008. During his second tour, he worked as a member of Task Force 51 with a long-range surveillance company that was tasked with tracking cross-border enemy insurgent raids from Syria and Iran.
As an assistant team leader – the second highest position in his six-person team – Porter was in charge of tracking and surveillance operations.
“We gained intelligence. We could never be seen,” he said. Porter explained his unit of “gofer spies” dropped into the desert and walked 15 miles with over 120 lbs. of gear each. Once the unit reached its destination, the spies hid in ditches for hours, taking video and gathering information in a game of cat-and-mouse with the enemy.
“It was totally scary,” he said. “Everyday, I’d go out and wonder ‘Is this going to be the last day for me? Am I going to see my friend blown up?'”
He also said civilians in Iraq were less than welcoming. He said his unit walked around feeling like “jolly green giants in an alien world where everybody frustrates you.”
During his tours in Iraq, Porter earned an Army Commendation Medal, an Iraq Campaign Medal, a Campaign Star and an Overseas Service Ribbon.
After a total of 36 months abroad with the Army and several months at base in Fort Bragg, N.C., Porter was honorably discharged in December 2008.
When he returned home, Porter suffered from anxiety. He considers himself lucky for not experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, however, which some of his friends experienced upon returning from war.
“You can’t be a human being without having reentry issues,” he said about soldiers returning home. “I was a success story.”
Porter credits his recovery to maintaining a support network of family and friends and returning to college.
“I’m not going to let that [anxiety] stop me or ruin my life,” he said.
Though he currently attends Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H., Porter finds out this week if GW reaccepted him. During his second time around, Porter wants to get back to school and back to work.
“When I first went to school I was on the crew team and that was what I was into: rowing and socializing,” Porter said. “Now I want to knock it out, I want to get A’s. This isn’t just fun times in Thurston.”
In his return to college life, Porter said he wants to get an excellent education by challenging himself academically.
“I’m older now. I’d like to think I’m more mature. I don’t think I’ve been robbed of any experience,” he said. The 29-year-old thinks he can add some diversity to the student population.
As a former student in the Elliott School of International Affairs, Porter originally had ambitions of working in the State Department. Now, he just wants to be a civilian.
“With the Army you can go anywhere-like the CIA-but there is no room for relationships. Those jobs burn you out,” he said.
Though Porter has no regrets, he now understands enlisting was a decision that came with a heavy burden.
“I had this romantic notion of going off. It’s not just you when you enlist; you put your family through it, too,” he said.
Looking back on his college years, Porter advises students to “live life while you’re young, before it kills your spirit. Would I do it over again? I don’t know. I’m glad I came out in one piece and I’m hopeful to get back and finish things.”
Porter hopes to complete his international affairs degree, but rather than work for the government, he has a different career in mind-brewing his own beer. After spending the past year at Plymouth State University earning, Porter intends to finish his bachelor’s and earn an MBA. Opening his own brewery as a way to return to civilian life, he said.
“During my second tour in Iraq, I seriously explored the professional side of brewing and the rest is history,” Porter said. “I enjoy the creative process of brewing as well as the competitive business acumen you need to sell beer in today’s market.”
The article has been revised to reflect the following correction (May 10, 2010).
The article originally said Charlie Porter was second in command of his unit. Porter was actually second in command of his team. The article also said Porter went to Plymouth State University to receive a certification in brewing. Porter actually went to Plymouth State University to finish part of his undergraduate degree.