Leaving school behind for military service

By Justin Reedy

In one trip to the mailbox, she went from worrying about textbooks and baby bottles to sandstorms and chemical attacks.

Hampton resident Batavia Sumlin-Domingue, a stay-at-home mother of three trying to finish her college degree, had been out of the Army for six years on inactive reserve when she got the unexpected letter in January.

With the United States preparing for a war with Iraq, she had been called back to active duty.

"I had no clue that was going to happen," said Sumlin-Domingue, 30. "I was kind of scared about a possible war because I knew I was still on inactive reserve, but I never thought they would need me. When I got the letter, I was so scared. I didn't know what to do."

While in the Army, Sumlin-Domingue's occupational specialty was "74 Bravo," or information systems operator n a computer technician. She served for two and a half years before leaving early due to the serious illness of a family member, and wound up in the private sector.

After being laid off from a computer-related job during the high-tech industry fallout, she decided to go back to school to finish her associate's degree in information technology and become a computer instructor.

Sumlin-Domingue headed back to Clayton College & State University in Morrow, where she had taken classes in 1997. With her previous credits at Clayton State and Georgia Military College, as well as credits earned for reaching the rank of specialist in the Army, she was only two semesters away from earning her degree when she registered for classes in January.

And then came her orders.

"It happened so fast," she said. "I had just started at Clayton State on a Monday, and I got the letter the next Monday and had to withdraw from classes on Wednesday."

Having been out of the Army for so long, she once again had to go through much of the initial processing recruits experience after joining up.

"I had to go through the whole process all over again," she explained. "Everything except basic training. I even got an anthrax shot."

?We were really scared'

Between trips to Fort Benning in Columbus to prepare for her call-up and possible deployment to the Persian Gulf, one of her biggest concerns was the fate of her family. She knew that her husband, Joseph Domingue, would be hard-pressed to take care of their three children alone while working a full-time job.

"He was just terrified," she said of her husband.

Domingue would likely have to move their family to Louisiana, where his relatives could help take care of their children while he "telecommuted," or worked from home on his computer.

"We were really scared, but I was more scared about leaving them," she said, nodding towards two of her children, three-year-old Joseph III and one-year-old Jada. "The youngest two have never been apart from me."

But with her family on the verge of relocating out-of-state and her children and husband having to suffer through a potentially long-term separation, Sumlin-Domingue got some good news. The Army didn't need her yet, after all, and she was sent home.

It could be a while before her life goes back to normal, but she stays occupied by taking care of Jada and the younger Joseph, as well as studying the materials she would be learning in class if she hadn't withdrawn from school.

"All of my instructors have been really nice about this," Sumlin-Domingue said. "Except for one teacher, they've all said I could test out of the classes and get credit for them."

Trading books for camouflage

Not everyone has had the same luck, though. In March, there had already been 14 Clayton State students who had to withdraw from school because of military call-ups, according to university spokesman John Shiffert. And since reservists are still being activated all the time during the ongoing Iraq conflict, he said, there have probably been as many as two dozen students called away from school to serve.

One of those students, Hampton resident Anthony Franco, was activated from the Marine Corps Reserves and has been sent to Kuwait to help with "back-end security" n standing guard at bases behind the front lines or in captured Iraqi cities.

"He shouldn't be anywhere near the front lines," said his wife, Kristi. "I haven't heard from him since he went overseas last week, but I'm hoping to. I'm ready to hear from him."

For months, the Francos had been prepared by Anthony's commanders for a possible deployment n his unit was nearly sent to Afghanistan after Sept. 11 n and he had no reservations about serving in combat. But Kristi had more trouble coping with the situation than her husband.

"It's not something I was ready for," said the 22-year-old wife.

Since Franco's call-up, though, she has tried to concentrate on her work as an elementary school teacher in Fayette County, and has been spending a lot of her spare time with her parents, who live nearby.

"I have 22 fifth-graders to take care of during the day, and that keeps me occupied," she said. "That's about the only thing I can do n stay busy."

Though Franco's call-up has but a crimp in his plans for finishing his education, his wife doesn't think he will give up on completing his degree in information technology because of this setback.

"I think he'll still do it n he'll still finish because he really wants his degree," she said.

School accommodating called-up students

Having to withdraw in the middle of a school semester can be disruptive to a student's education, but Clayton State and other Georgia universities try and minimize those difficulties.

The state Board of Regents allows students who are called up to active duty or deployed abroad to withdraw from school and get a full refund of tuition and fees, according to Rebecca Gmeiner, the registrar at CCSU. Students gone for more than one year must apply for re-admission into the college, Gmeiner said, but anyone absent for less than that can come back and register for classes immediately.

Though Clayton State is required to have such policies by the Board of Regents, Shiffert said, the college has tried to be as supportive as possible to student soldiers and the rest of America's military personnel.

In February, the school hosted a family briefing for a national guard unit called up from Fort Gillem in Forest Park, packing about 1,000 soldiers and family members into the CCSU gym. Last month, the college held a military student recognition event honoring all of the Clayton State students who had been called to serve in the country's armed forces. Both low-profile events were college-only affairs, and neither was publicized.

"I think that's indicative of Clayton State's support of the military," Shiffert said.