By Glen Johnson
There are not many students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell wearing bracelets commemorating soldiers killed in Afghanistan, let alone one who was their friend.
There also are not many students like Mike Hubbard walking across campus.
He is a nearly 26-year old freshman from Methuen, taking classes alongside 18-year-olds who graduated from high school only last spring.
Hubbard, who enlisted in the Army in reaction to the 9/11 attacks, spent the past seven-plus years working his way up to the Army’s Special Forces - also known as the Green Berets - and through two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is now on “terminal leave,’’ slated to come off active duty on Oct. 25. But as he burns accrued vacation, he has launched into his life’s next phase: college, followed, he hopes, by law school and a career making the kind of policies he was asked to execute as a soldier.
“I want to make sure that the people who are making those decisions know what they are doing,’’ Hubbard said, sitting in the campus Starbucks . “I am not a dove by any means, but when kids start coming home in body bags, it better be for a real reason.’’
The student-soldier participated last week in a debate showcasing the Democrats vying to challenge Republican Senator Scott Brown in his bid for reelection next year.
Hubbard, among a panel of UMass Lowell student questioners, sparked one of the evening’s most direct exchanges between the two leading primary candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Alan Khazei.
What would you say, Hubbard asked, if your son or daughter said they planned to join the military?
“That is a really hard question for me,’’ said Khazei, a City Year cofounder, who agonized and reflected on his 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “Obviously, I’d honor it if they chose to do it, but I’m just in pain for any mom or dad who sees their son or daughter going off to war right now, especially when these are wars we really should end, so, that’s a tough one, honestly.’’
Warren, a Harvard Law School professor, took a subtle dig at her opponent.
“This is not a hard question for me,’’ she said. “All three of my brothers served in the military and I, in fact, have urged my children, or one of my children, to consider it. He chose not to. But I believe that military service is a real alternative, and it’s an alternative for a career for some, and it’s an important opportunity to be part of America for others, so my answer is, yes, absolutely.’’
Hubbard said he was prompted to ask the question by his own service. He also believes the relatives of some of those killed in action question whether the rest of the country feels their pain or their loved one’s sacrifice.
I wanted to see what our potential elected officials, how would they relate to the plight of the common man,’’ he said. “I thought it would be a question that would elicit an honest response without rhetoric.’’
And what did he think of the answers?
“Whether they were truthful is between them and God, but I thought they were well thought-out,’’ said Hubbard.
Khazei’s emotional response showed “it’s not a simple yes-or-no answer’’ for him, Hubbard said. Warren’s, meanwhile, “brought her down to a regular level for the casual observer.’’
Hubbard’s own disinterest in being a casual observer is what prompted him to enlist in a delayed-entry program while still a junior at Central Catholic High School.
The son of a former Washington, D.C., police officer who was a Special Forces member, Hubbard himself was bitten by the bug after reading the famed Vietnam War book “The Green Berets.’’
Like most teens, his vague ideas of a career were something to put off until after he completed the more traditional precursors: high school and college. But then, when Hubbard was a sophomore in Miss Holland’s English class, someone rolled in a television set so the students could watch the World Trade towers collapse.
Hubbard’s timetable accelerated.
“I just got a fire in my belly,’’ he said. “I wanted to get involved in the real world as quickly as possible and, in all honesty, I wanted to test myself and see if I could make it into the [Special Forces/ community… . While it might seem idealistic for someone who was 17 or 18 when they were making these decisions, I couldn’t have been more clear-headed about it.’’
A couple weeks after Hubbard graduated, a recruiter showed up at his house to drive him to Boston for processing. Then it was off to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic and advanced training, and then Fort Bragg, N.C., for Special Forces training.
Two weeks before graduation, Hubbard and several other soldiers got caught deviating from their training: During an exercise, they grabbed fresh water from a nearby house and, after being seen by the homeowner, accepted a pizza.
Hubbard ended up where he was after basic: A grunt, this time assigned to the 82d Airborne Division. What he thought would be a quick punishment assignment turned serious in January 2007, when the entire 4,000-member brigade was sent to Iraq amid the first wave of President Bush’s troop surge.
A six-month deployment ended up stretching to 15.
Hubbard started as a Humvee driver and gunner before the brigade commander recognized his advanced training and tapped him for his security detail. Shortly after returning in March 2008, Hubbard talked his way back into Special Forces training.
Ask when he got his green beret and Hubbard doesn’t hesitate: “March 6, 2009.’’
“I had done a lot to get there … to get through the training, and then I even threw a few more roadblocks in front of myself, but I pushed through it all,’’ the soldier said.
Four months later, Hubbard deployed with his unit to Afghanistan as a communications specialist.
They worked in the west, training Afghan commandos. They worked with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, targeting drug factories, and with various military elements, targeting explosives caches. They engaged in one particularly nasty, four-hour firefight while working to recover the bodies of two soldiers from the 82d Airborne swept away in a river.
And, at one point, Hubbard fell while wearing his full battle gear and suffered a spinal compression fracture. He was replaced on the next mission by the unit’s more senior communication specialist.
That soldier, Sergeant David Metzger, was killed on Oct. 26, 2009, when his helicopter crashed as the group returned from capturing over 500 pounds of explosives and materiel used to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
The bracelet Hubbard wears today is in memory of his friend, whose body was one of those President Obama greeted during his first visit to Dover, Del.
“If I hadn’t broke my back, I would have been on that chopper,’’ Hubbard said, spinning the bracelet around his wrist.
In January 2010, Hubbard again returned to the United States. In July, he was deployed to Central America, serving as a military adviser. He was traveling across Honduras and Costa Rica when he decided it was time to take off the beret he had worked so hard to earn.
“As much as I was having fun on these missions, I wanted to get out, finish my education, and get involved on the policy side,’’ he said.
He had achieved the rank of staff sergeant and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan.
Hubbard arrived back in Massachusetts just before Labor Day and started school Sept. 6. An only child, he is living with his father and mother, Mary, while he gets reacclimated to civilian life.
What’s it like sitting in class with teenagers?
“I feel fortunate that I’m a little older and that I’ve seen more parts of the world than some other students, and I’m definitely able to relate more to why things matter than people who haven’t had those opportunities,’’ he said.
As he spoke, Hubbard stopped to greet students at a nearby table.
The freshman is already running for Student Senate.
Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com/ politics. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.