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Army reservist chooses deployment over college

Suyapa Lopez Padilla, 32, who recently became a U.S. citizen, drops her studies at San Diego State for a tour in Iraq.

November 05, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — There are 136,707 military reservists and National Guard members on active duty, the Pentagon reported last week.

For many of the reservists and guardsmen, their call-up was an annoying diversion from their civilian plans involving employment, family and education.

But not for Suyapa Lopez Padilla, 32, who recently became a U.S. citizen and has withdrawn from her studies at San Diego State to accompany the Army's 416th Civil Affairs Battalion to Iraq.

She could have avoided the deployment and remained at San Diego State to finish her degree in international business. She had the opportunity to join the ROTC and become an officer, possibly delaying any deployment until missions to Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer commonplace.

"I knew I should go back to school, but my heart wasn't in it," Lopez said in a telephone interview from Fort Dix, N.J. "My heart was with this deployment, with my group."

Lopez, now with the rank of specialist, said she will soon be promoted to sergeant. When the battalion deploys to Iraq in March, its mission will be to help Iraqi civilians with education, medical care, clean water, sanitation and other everyday needs.

Staying in the United States while the battalion went to Iraq was not an emotional option for Lopez. "I would feel guilty I was letting them down," she said. "They need me."

Born in Nicaragua, Lopez went to Europe when her mother was posted there in her country's diplomatic corps. She was in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell and later, after graduating from high school, worked for the United Nations.

In 2001, she came to America to be with her sister, whose Marine husband was deploying to Iraq from Camp Pendleton. She supported herself by working at a clothing store in Carlsbad, and in May 2007, she graduated with an associate of arts degree from Mira Costa College in Oceanside and transferred to San Diego State.

Drawn to the military, Lopez joined the Army Reserve last year and went to boot camp at Fort Jackson, S.C., and then advanced training at Fort Lee, Va. She had worried that as an older recruit, she would have trouble keeping up with the group. It wasn't a problem and she graduated with honors.

"I liked it so much, I regretted going back to college," she said.

Back at school, Lopez, who is unmarried, continued to work full-time at the clothing store and carry a full load.

San Diego State prides itself on being military-friendly. This semester, the campus has 913 veterans, 23 reservists, 154 active-duty and 120 military family members. The number of veterans is up 14% from last fall, as the new G.I. Bill has kicked in.

Professors and administrators keep an eye on the military-linked students. A veterans center on campus offers counseling, encouragement and a sense of camaraderie.

Max Lund, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and now a lecturer at San Diego State, was impressed when he heard Lopez speaking to her fellow international business students in Portuguese, Spanish, German and English. Later when he learned that she was deploying, his admiration increased.

"She could have taken the easy way out and gone the ROTC route," he said. "Instead, she's going to war."

The 416th Civil Affairs Battalion is composed of reservists, many of them police officers and college students. Sgt. Federico Borjas, a San Diego police officer, was killed in October 2008 while deployed to Afghanistan with the 416th.

In April, Lopez was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and immediately registered to vote. Citizenship has sharpened her sense that she should go to Iraq with her battalion.

"I feel I have a duty to my country -- it's my country now," she said.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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