"You've got that packet in the mail from the army that you've been dreading"....with those words Ryan Conklin went from the hunky star of an MTV reality show to what many viewers consider a modern American martyr.
At the age of 17, inspired by 9/11, he had enlisted in the army and served as a front line infantryman in Iraq. Now, five years later, taking a break from college to star in the umpteenth iteration of MTV's Real World set in Brooklyn, NY, he went to great lengths to not come across as "that dude who used to fight in Iraq."
Ryan's hope was to use the reality TV platform to challenge a younger audience's preconceptions about war vets and to work out some of his mixed feelings about having fought for a cause he was no longer sure he believed in. But a funny thing happened on the road to smashing stereotypes -- IRR, or Individual Ready Reserve.
Ryan became the poster child for the fine print on army contracts that specifies that every person who joins the Army incurs an 8 year Military Service Obligation. Soldiers typically serve two to four years on active duty, then are transferred to the Reserve to fulfill the remainder of their obligation. It's a lottery system, and with the election of Barack Obama late last year Ryan was pretty confident that his time as a soldier was done.
During the aptly titled episode "Saving A Private Ryan," an army buddy joins Ryan and the roommates after a Veteran's Day parade and makes sure to tell them that Ryan may seem like an easy going guy, but he is also a highly decorated and " bad-ass" soldier, leading one roommate to remark that he was humbled to be in the presence of such a hero.
Cue the phone call just two days later. The moment that Ryan's brother's broken voice informs him of his fate (his parents weren't up to the task,) the reality show morphs into a reality check. The stark footage of Ryan's reaction -- the fear and shock apparent in his eyes as he processes the fact that not only is he going back in the army, but also to Iraq -- is heartbreaking to watch.
It takes a certain kind of hero to fight a war for his country. It's a very small subset of these heroes that would allow a tween audience to see a bad-ass soldier take the news with a stifled sob.
Ryan returns to Iraq today but took the time to speak with me from Fort Bragg in North Carolina just before his deployment --
CS: Let me start by saying that even though I'm beyond the core MTV demographic I never stopped being a fan of Real World since it began in the early 90s. I embrace it as one of the last remaining forms of documentary in its purest form that still stands head and shoulders above anything else called a "reality show. "
RC: Hell yeah.
It becomes clear pretty early each season what each person's headline is ie: "I'm the girl who makes everything into a major drama," "I'm the naive kid from the sticks about to get my first taste of being in the big city..." The usual stereotypes abound. Well, you started out as the devil may care college dude with everything going for him. Was it your idea to use the show to challenge the stereotype of an ex soldier and to sort of demystify what it is like to be a young vet?
I never thought of that. I never thought of being looked upon as that but I wanted to make sure to show enough of myself to show we're not robots and we have our own personality and the army thing came after I got to know the other roommates, and to show I'm not yes sir, yes m'am robotic army man. Then when I got called back that's when it hit me [that] this is being recorded [and] people are going to look up at me and see what I do in this situation and I won't do something that wouldn't be right to other people getting called back.
When did you first realize that being on the show would be an excellent vehicle for shattering stereotypes?
I didn't think about the big picture --it was spur of the moment. I was in Pittsburgh visiting my then girlfriend at the time and Real World was casting at one of the bars we go to, so we went in and I still had my doubts on whether I should do it or not but then after couple rounds of beer my turn came up and one thing led to another. I started filling out a packet and every time I went to another interview I thinking this is the last one why would they ever pick me so let's just go in and have fun with it...
I guess you really were having fun with it ?
It is fun. It's one of the best spur of moment decisions I ever made, usually the other ones have a negative effect ....
Do you put going to Iraq in that category?
No. It definitely opened doors I never saw possible and whether I like it or not it made me who I was.
You're shown on election day being so excited that Barack Obama won and it seemed you were thinking then that there was even less of a chance you would go back.
The letter I got in the mail happened during Bush administration, so as I was celebrating I had my orders cut and on the way. I got the packet on Veteran's Day of all freakin' days [sent to his family home in Gettysburg, PA]. My brother didn't call me until two days after I was in the [New York City] Veteran's Day parade and it looked staged, but that really happened in that order.
When you went to Iraq the first time you were part of the legendary Rakkasans, the Army's famed 101st Airborne Division. In Baghdad and Tikrit, your 187th Infantry Regiment served as guards during the trial of Saddam Hussein. Will you be returning with them?
The 3rd battalion of 187 is who I was with . They're a great group of very serious soldiers and they don't want to let the men who came before them down. So there's a high level of discipline in that unit. I wouldn't want to be with anybody else. That's sadly not who I'm with now but I don't have that say. I''m attached to the North Carolina National Guard with the 30th uh...HBCT, or something like that. I'm not sure, I wikipediaed them the other day so that's how I found out a bit so I'm in [asks someone]...252 infantry, combined arms battalion....something like that.
I read it took more than two weeks for your fellow soldiers to realize you had this whole Real World celebrity part of your past ?
Like when I went in the house with the roommates I didn't make an issue about being a vet, I wanted them to know me for me first. Same thing when I went back in the army-- I want to be looked at as a soldier -I'm no different from other the guys. They all got called back from great paying jobs, family, kids everything. Some of them are in their third or fourth callback, so I try not to complain because we're all in it together.
On the show you get involved with a veterans group that is against this war. Are you for or against our presence in Iraq?
I've been asked that many times. I say I'm against and then other times I don't care. It's changed so much since I've been there that I don't even know what it's like any more.
You left in Sept 2006 so do you think your duties will have changed?
I won't be doing any more arresting people and kicking in doors. Right now we're looking on as the Iraqi army does that--we chaperone them, we watch them work, its a lot different., The rules of engagement have changed. I'm going into a totally different country, doing a totally different job.
Do you think you will be safer this time?
Yeah because [after] this many years, all the dumb insurgents are dead so you only deal with the skilled ones. I wouldn't say it's safer but the chance of getting blown up or shot at is less likely.
You're quite the military history nerd according to your MySpace page.
I'm reading about the civil war right now. It's in my blood and when I was a kid and moved to Gettysburg I was fascinated with it. I like to study wars,. If you don't learn what happens you are doomed to repeat it--that's my whole draw to military history.
Some would say we are repeating history-like Vietnam- right now.
We're so used to having somebody surrender and call it a success and puff our chests out and say we won but with Vietnam it was not like that. [With] Iraq it's not like that.
You could always have claimed your knee injury as a reason not to go back?
That's not me. I don't think I'd be able to look at myself. When we all got called back there was 300 of us, but only 200 showed, so 100 just didn't show. After a couple of weeks of medical records and talking that dwindled to 55 because of guys claiming PTSD and injuries. I could have done the same thing but at the end of the day-and I talked with other guys who stuck it out- we know we are good, we know our jobs and we all have a bit of pride in ourselves not to do that. We all made a commitment when we joined, we all knew it was an 8 year commitment. There's a new cycle coming in every two or three weeks. There are so many IRR, so it's happening all the time. (As of March 2009, the US Army had recalled 26,954 ready reservists since September 11, 2001. Of those, 10,592 requested exemptions of which 6,352 were granted.)
Do you feel anger towards those 250 who are not going?"
If they got out, they have their reasons. Just like basic training, it weeds out the weak ones, so....
Tell me about this quote on your MySpace page: I hate people who bad mouth the military and haven't served and I love people who badmouth the military and HAVE served."
Everyone has bitched once or twice--you do a lot of things that suck so misery loves company. I always tend to cling to the guys who complained, we vented--obviously not to the higher ups--we're specialists and privates, so misery loves company.
Your MySpace page also features the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing," is that your theme song?
I've had that for years. It's a great song and I live by that I never stop believing anything I ever wanted is obtainable and it may be a cliché but its true, if you get rejected don't stop believing. Oh and I want to see them reunite.
You will be making so many more people aware of what it's like to get called back. Does that feel like a responsibility or do you embrace that?
It's something I embrace. I never thought a year ago that I'd have this on my plate, but I want to keep it going. I come from a household of teachers originally and I was going to school to be an educator so why not teach what I know if it helps people and they can relate to me then that's a great platform to have.
Ryan has already taught us that integrity and courage can prevail in these cynical times. His story reminds us what terrible risks our country takes with one of its most priceless resource--the best and the brightest of our nation's youth. Most of all, he is teaching us to never stop believing... in heroes.
You can watch Ryan's video about his first tour of duty here.
You can watch full episodes of Real World: Brooklyn here.