On the frontlines

A military life can be among the most challenging—and rewarding—ways to serve others

By Nicole Sweeney Etter

Brigadier General Cynthia O’Connell (BS ’81) and her colleagues were just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner in the mess hall as the words “Shamrock Black, Shamrock Black” blared over the speakers. It was the code for another incoming mass casualty at the 349th Combat Support Hospital at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan, and the trauma staff didn’t hesitate. They stood up in unison and sprinted toward the hospital as the rest of the Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel in the hall gave them a standing ovation.

It was a scene that would play out again and again in 2008 and 2009, when O’Connell commanded the hospital in the Khost Province in Eastern Afghanistan at a base that was so frequently under attack by insurgents that it was dubbed “Rocket City.” Patients, almost all Afghans, arrived day and night with trauma injuries from gunshot wounds, motor vehicle accidents, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Despite the pressures, the hospital’s staff treated more than 4,000 patients with an amazing 99.8 percent survival rate during O’Connell’s time there.

“It was kind of like M*A*S*H in many ways,” recalled O’Connell, who mostly supervised but sometimes jumped in to hold down an artery or perform CPR. “It was tremendously exciting. Being part of such a great care team and being able to take care of someone and bring them back from the brink—it was just an amazing experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

60 Years

Loyola’s Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) was established on July 1, 1947, to produce Infantry and Medical officers. The first cadet corps of 100 students enrolled in September 1948, making this year the 60th anniversary of ROTC at Loyola.

Being part of such a great care team and being able to take care of someone and bring them back from the brink—it was just an amazing experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
— Brigadier General Cynthia O’Connell (BS ’81)

A life-changing decision

O’Connell is one of many Loyolans who have found their hearts drawn to military service, answering a calling that attracts less than 1 percent of Americans today. They share something in common with their alma mater’s namesake: St. Ignatius of Loyola, was, after all, a former soldier whose spiritual transformation came while he was recovering from battle injuries. And no matter what their assignment, these men and women live out Loyola’s mission every day, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect and defend others.

Sometimes the attraction to the military life is unexpected: It could be spurred by a grandparent’s tales of fighting in a long-ago war; a love of country, adventure, and travel; or the practical incentive of an ROTC scholarship to help pay for college. For O’Connell, ROTC started as a fun break from her grueling pre-med coursework, but it quickly grew into something more. “There was such a camaraderie, and folks were always willing to help each other,” she said. “I didn’t really consider the Army as a career until my senior year, when I decided I wasn’t going to medical school and needed something else to do. I’ve been taught all my life to provide service to others, and the Army seemed like a good way to do that.”

Cadet Samantha Uppleger (’18) surprised her family with her decision to join ROTC, but she was convinced the military would suit her personality. “I’m a very athletic, outdoorsy person, and in high school I did a lot of volunteer work at my school and church,” said Uppleger, a senior majoring in international studies and Spanish. “The desire to serve others has always been a part of my life. When I realized there were opportunities for the two passions to intersect, I was willing to try something different.”

One calling, many roles

It was that same commitment that drew Lt. Col. Nick Bugajski, chair of Loyola’s Department of Military Instruction, to attend the elite United States Military Academy at West Point. He has since spent nearly two decades in the Army, mostly in the military police, and today leads the 118 ROTC cadets in Loyola’s Rambler Battalion. He calls teaching cadets his dream job. “Loyola’s mission is about service, and the Army’s mission is about service. They strengthen each other,” he said.

Loyola’s mission is about service, and the Army’s mission is about service. They strengthen each other.”
— Lt. Colonel Nick Bugajski

Over the years Bugajski has deployed to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Korea; wrote military policy at the Pentagon; and led an 800-soldier unit that was responsible for military prisoners at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In Afghanistan, he served as speechwriter for a four-star general, sitting in high-level meetings with Afghanistan’s president and touring the surrounding countries with senior military leaders. “Most people don’t really know the great opportunities the military affords,” Bugajski said. “My time in the military has made me a better person. It’s hardened my character; it’s hardened my resolve to help others and grow.”

The variety of opportunities kept Maj. Leonard Leffner (BA ’74) in the service longer than he expected. After graduating from Loyola, the former ROTC cadet spent the next 20 years on active duty, hopscotching to Army bases across America and Germany. His assignments ranged from training Army mechanics and truck drivers to teaching ROTC cadets, but much of his time was spent working in intelligence. “I found that my undergrad degree in history worked really well with the reports I had to produce as an intelligence officer,” said Leffner, who later became a high school social studies teacher.

Leffner spent three years in Frankfurt, Germany, where he worked in an intelligence center to monitor what was happening across Europe, then transferred to another intelligence post in Maryland. His last assignment was serving as a support officer for the U.S. Army Foreign Counterintelligence Activity, overseeing personnel, security, and logistics for what he describes as “the spy catcher unit.”

One of his most memorable assignments was serving as assistant chief of the Pentagon’s intelligence watch team. “You work 12-hour shifts and keep an eye on the whole world,” he said. “That was really neat. You’re briefing three-star generals and they’re making decisions on how to commit people or assets based on what you’re telling them.”


Making an impact

But it’s the personal connections that stand out the most. Leffner will never forget a moment early in his career when a young soldier turned to him for help with family problems. Leffner connected him to Army Emergency Relief and urged him to call home. Years later, Leffner was in civilian clothes at a restaurant in Arizona when he was flagged down by the same soldier he’d assisted all those years ago. “I wanted to thank you for helping me when I was going through training. That meant a lot to me,” the soldier told him.

Those were the moments that kept Leffner committed to military life. “Serving your country is tied into Loyola’s mission of serving others,” he said. “Also, Loyola’s mission is to produce graduates who will persist in seeking justice, helping people, and giving people opportunities, and those are all part of what we do in the military.”

O’Connell, who last May received an honorary Doctorate of Science from Loyola, recalls many memorable moments from her 35 years in the medical service corps. But she especially treasures the time she spent in Afghanistan. Because resources were stretched so thin, the hospital was supposed to treat only civilians who were injured from U.S. operations and whose injuries threatened “life, limb, or eyesight.” But O’Connell took in every patient she could. “My upbringing said that we care for all, and it was really a gift to be able to give out so much good will and humanitarian care,” she said.

In the trauma ward that Thanksgiving day waited a family of seven, including two children, who had accidentally set off an IED as they rode together on a single motorcycle. The boy, around age 9, had lost an arm and leg in the blast, and two uncles were barely alive. The boy’s 12-year-old sister, though injured herself, ran through mine fields to get help for the rest of the family, and soon an Army helicopter was airlifting them to O’Connell’s hospital.

Two weeks later, the family was discharged, all walking except the little boy, who rode in a pediatric wheelchair that U.S. Special Forces soldiers had traveled to nearby Pakistan to get. The nurses presented a special heroism certificate to the girl, written in her native language of Pashto. “What I’m most proud of is that we were able to show the Afghan people that we’re just like them, and we were there to help and not there just as occupiers,” O’Connell said.

At the same time, Loyola’s veterans acknowledge the challenges of the military life. A father of five young boys, Bugajski deployed to Iraq only a month after his wedding and has been separated from his family for as long as a year at a time. “There is a toll with being deployed away from your family in a very serious position, and seeing the sacrifices that both soldiers and family members make on a daily basis is just an awe-inspiring thing for me to witness and be a part of,” he said.

O’Connell was scheduled for mid-tour leave to see her husband and teenaged daughters when her base in Afghanistan was hit with a rocket attack. “It was five days of being under siege, and the bad guys were really pushing an offensive. No way was I going to leave my hospital at that time,” she said.

So instead, she missed her daughter’s eighth-grade graduation and went nearly two years without seeing her family, though she still managed to help with homework and attend parent-teacher conferences over Skype. “When you’re in the military, you give up a lot, and the family members give up a lot,” she said. “The families also serve and sacrifice because they’re always scared for you. You can tell great war stories when you get home, but when you’re there, you try to make it seem like everything’s OK because you don’t want to worry your family even more.”


I’ve met people from all over the country, and because of all of the things I’ve been able to do, it’s given me a lot of self confidence. It’s really molded me into a better person.”
— Cadet Samantha Uppleger

Uppleger knows that the military life can be a hard road. Even after she fractured her spine during an ROTC obstacle course, she was back to her early morning physical training a few months later, more determined than ever to pursue a career in the military. And there have been many rewarding moments, too, like when she spent a month in Madagascar teaching local soldiers English and U.S. Army tactics through ROTC’s Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency Program.

“Most of my favorite college memories involve ROTC,” she said. “I’ve met people from all over the country, and because of all of the things I’ve been able to do, it’s given me a lot of self confidence. It’s really molded me into a better person.”

She’s proud to have earned an ROTC scholarship and, most recently, an active-duty contract after graduation. She’s still waiting to hear where she’ll be assigned, but her dream job is field artillery because it demands a balance of mental and physical fitness. “It sounds like a challenge,” she said, “and I like a good challenge.”

She sees the Ignatian value of cura personalis at work in ROTC every day, and that’s part of why she’s so excited to continue after graduation. “When people think of military service, they think you’re here to serve your country and to serve the citizens of the United States, which is absolutely true,” she said. “But the more time you spend in the military, the more you realize that caring for yourself and for each other is a big motivator. We really do care for each other and treat each other like a family.”

Loyola’s mission is about service, and the Army’s mission is about service. They strengthen each other.”
— Lt. Colonel Nick Bugajski