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  • Nathan Eapen

My Journey to Find a Home

Growing up as many young boys do, I had a keen interest in military history, from the Roman legions to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I sought out every book and television program about the military that I could find. My fascination is what initially sparked an interest in serving in the military. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my grandfather, a veteran of the Royal Indian Navy, during World War II. Like so many men of his generation, my grandfather answered his nation's call during a time of war. These men did not serve for glory or benefits but simply because it was the right thing to do, to serve when required. He instilled in me the responsibility to answer my nation’s call if ever asked. Fast forward to my senior year in high school in 2016, and the United States was engaged in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While many in the general public may have forgotten that these conflicts were ongoing, reports of service members killed in action flashing on my news screen made me realize that my time to answer the call had arrived.

I enlisted in the United States Army and volunteered to serve as an infantryman. I served in the army from 2017-2020. An infantry soldier is subject to the highest physical demands and risks of any occupation in the military. They are tasked with tracking, engaging, and destroying the enemy in close combat. My specific job was to operate as a member of a mortar squad to support my fellow infantryman by providing indirect fire support. I completed two rotations to eastern Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. On my second rotation in July 2019, however, I sustained an injury, the severity of which would lead me to be medically discharged from the army.

I entered a civilian world far different from the military, where hyperindividuality is the norm and individuals separate based on differences instead of bonding over similarities. Infantry soldiers operate in close-knit teams called squads and platoons. My platoon was composed of a diverse group of individuals, including a first-generation immigrant from Africa, the son of a Harvard Law School professor, and a 30-year-old martial arts instructor. All of us were different, whether by socioeconomic class or cultural origin. However, we were all united by our decision to serve. My platoon membership exposed me to a diverse group of individuals and a range of perspectives. It impressed upon me the value of working across differences while showing me how much we have in common. With all this in mind, it makes sense why I felt disconnected from civilians. Further complicating the challenge of reentry, I entered a world already disconnected due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I left the army in June 2020 and began recovering from my injuries while attending the University of Kentucky. At this point, I could not exercise without severe pain and walked with a noticeable limp. I knew I faced a long road to recovery, but nonetheless I set a goal to attend Cornell University to play sprint football. I was neither the best student nor athlete, academically in the bottom 10% of my class and had injuries from my military service that caused me pain and impacted my ability to walk. Regardless, I endured months of grueling rehab while completely immersing myself in my coursework so I could get the necessary grades I needed to get into Cornell. After navigating the complexities of the Veterans Affairs healthcare system, I finally got surgery in March 2021. I rehabbed for months after my surgery and, shortly thereafter, found out I was accepted into Cornell.

At Cornell, sprint football is one of the 37 varsity teams representing the University in intercollegiate competitions. The team competes in the Collegiate Sprint Football League, with other universities such as the University of Pennsylvania and the United States Naval Academy. For those not familiar, the rules are identical to NCAA college football rules with one unique stipulation: the 178-pound weight limit.

The sprint football team is representative of the student body at Cornell. Like my platoon, the team has a diverse group of individuals who all voluntarily chose to be part of something bigger than themselves. The team has international students, non-traditional students, people from rural areas and cities alike. Some players have played football since they were seven years old, and others only started playing after being at Cornell. The diversity of majors from agricultural sciences to government to environment & sustainability creates an intellectually stimulating environment unlike any I have ever experienced. My team has enhanced my educational experience while also providing the diversity I thrived on during my military career during this transition out of active service and into Cornell.

Unlike any other team at Cornell, sprint has a large number of veterans and military-affiliated individuals who compose the coaching staff, support staff, players, and alumni. Terry Cullen (MBA ‘66), head coach of sprint football since 1977, is a veteran who served as Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps and was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions in the Vietnam War. Alumni who served include current Commissioner of New York City Emergency Management Zach Iscol ‘01 (Marine Corps) and Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalist Christopher Chivers ‘87 (Marine Corps) of The New York Times Magazine. The team itself also currently has several military affiliations: athletic trainer Marc Chamberlin (Navy), coach Dan Donahue (Army), and players Michael Caprietta ‘23 (Marine Corps), Chul Ahn ‘25 (Republic of Korea Marine Corps), Jason Haims ‘23 (Naval ROTC), Wyatt McDevitt ‘23 (Army ROTC/Army Reserve), and Hyung Ahn ‘23 (Republic of Korea Marine Corps).

In this group of undersized yet determined individuals, an unconventional student like myself was able to find a home. Sprint football motivated me to heal. It has given me a home on campus similar to being in my old mortar platoon. Most importantly, the team provides me the foundation to move on beyond my service in my transition to the civilian world. The sprint football team is one of the few communities on campus who have helped me integrate into a more typical Cornell environment. In season, I look forward to the few hours per day I can play football and spend time with my team. I am grateful to be a member and have the privilege of competing with my sprint football teammates.


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