When you stand on the fourth floor of the Johnny Unitas® Stadium press box and look down at the Towson men's lacrosse team, you see a sea of gold and black helmets and jerseys. No one would suspect No. 29 was any different.
But just under two years ago, John Paukovits was wearing another uniform and a different type of protective equipment - Army fatigues and body armor.
After playing lacrosse for both Southampton College and Stony Brook University, Paukovits felt dissat isfied with college life and dropped out. He worked in a variety of jobs - landscaping, snowboard sales, optical supply - for 10 months before deciding it was time to once again re-evaluate his life.
Despite a lack of family history in the military, Paukovits
thought joining the Army might provide the structure he needed. He turned 20
the first Sunday of basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Every day, Paukovits
woke up at 5:30 a.m. for physical training - jumping jacks, push ups, five-mile
runs - then classes, cleaning, lunch, more classes, more cleaning and bed by 9
"It's kind of a shock when you first get there, but it's really not that bad," he noted. "It's only the first four months of your long military career. It goes by quick. Physically, it wasn't really a problem for me because I was an athlete. Mentally, it wasn't that hard because I was used to being in a team environment with all guys."
From there he was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash. where he was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He worked as the squad radio telephone operator (RTO) for the platoon for a year and a half.
"[It was] a great job for a private coming straight in because you work directly with the lieutenant and platoon sergeant," said Paukovits. "It was great for me because I got to learn a lot about military operations."
He deployed for the first time in July 2006 as a squad automatic rifleman. He landed in Mosul, Iraq for four months before going to Baghdad International Airport for the rest of his deployment, completing most of his operations in the city of Baghdad. Paukovits spent a total of 15 months in Iraq his first tour.
When he talks about his military experience, Paukovits still speaks in the present tense. He is also very m atter-of-fact and able to see humor in it.
"Every day was different," he said with a short laugh. "One time we took a lot of EFPs - explosively formed projectiles - and they were blasting through our Strikers. They are very armored vehicles but [the EFPs] were getting through now [another short laugh].
So one day we had to fill five-gallon water containers with mud and strap them to the side of our trucks because it was another six inches of mud the things had to get through.
Every little bit helps so we were more than willing to strap these things on. It took 10 hours to do. You roll around and then two weeks later all of them are already blown off the truck. You're willing to meet those daily challenges on a regular basis to cut down on a little bit of risk."
Part of cutting down that risk was the body armor and equipment he wore on a daily basis.
"On a light day it's 70 pounds of equipment," he said. "On a heavy day it would be like 100 pounds. Uniform, body armor, helmet, 600 rounds of machine gun ammo. Water ends up weighing a lot because you want to carry so much of it. The weapon itself, you're talking about 20 pounds at least. You have medical equipment, explosives, anything that you could carry, 'cause it's better to have and not need than need and not have, you know? Intelligence equipment, zip cuffs, everything under the sun. Ounces make pounds and it adds up quick."
Paukovits deployed to Iraq for the second time from
September 2009 to September 2010. This time, he worked in an internment
facility running a voluntary vocational school at night teaching HVAC training,
agriculture training, moderate religion classes. He also guarded entrances to the
prison and the base.
"The first deployment is where I got the closest to my buddies," said Paukovits. "They are my very good friends, honestly, the guys I deployed with on the first deployment. My one buddy is in Special Forces now. Me and him were kind of characters together. He's the kind of person I've heard every one of his stories like 20 times. He'll be telling me a story in a guard shack somewhere, we've been there for 10 months, and I'm listening to it like I've never heard it before. He's telling me like he's never told it to me before and we both know we're heard this story a bunch of times.
"Another buddy of mine and I swapped guard positions one night. When my buddy took my spot, 20 minutes later a bullet comes through and zings him in the neck. He comes down and he's got a little burn like someone hit him with a lacrosse stick or something - [barely a mark on him] and I just start laughing because you can't be serious if this is really happening. Its situations like that make you really close to people. A centimeter and he'd be dead."
By the end of 2009, Paukovits couldn't ignore the toll his service was taking on his family, and he wanted to play lacrosse and finish school. Before joining the Army, his passion for the sport had all but disappeared. However, his military service hadn't just helped him grow up. It also reminded him of how much he loved the game.
In April 2010, Paukovits emailed lacrosse programs at Maryland, Duke, Hofstra, Stony Brook and Towson. That same day he had a voicemail and an email from then-coach Tony Seaman asking him to commit to Towson.
Everything fell into place. The Army let Paukovits out three months early, the credits he earned online during his service transferred, Towson has a large percentage of veterans in its student population and his academic eligibility remaining perfectly fit into the requirements for the post-2001 GI Bill. He left the Army as a staff sergeant and enrolled at Towson as a sophomore in the fall of 2011.
"I couldn't have gotten any luckier," he said. "The opportunity to play lacrosse again is unreal."
The transition wasn't easy, though. Paukovits admits he was not in lacrosse shape when he arrived and getting there was tiring, painful and stressful. It showed in his play in 2012, but he didn't let it affect how he prepared.
"He would work out in the morning with the team - lifting and running," said senior Matt Hughes. "If I missed a practice in the morning last year, I would make it up in the afternoon. I would go into the weight room and John would be there...again. For his second workout of the day. His work ethic is amazing, and he is a real role model for the younger guys on the team."
Junior Andrew Wascavage agrees, "John is really wise; he knows how to act in life and sets great examples. He fits into a leadership role perfectly."
"His sophomore year, he was a little reserved and was trying to find his way and role within the team," said head coach Shawn Nadelen. "He had been away from lacrosse so long that he was trying to remember how to handle a lacrosse stick rather than a rifle. He settled in towards the end of the season and saw some time for us in the last couple games.
"This year, John has really raised the standards others are expected to follow within our program. His dedication to the team and his work ethic has been an immediate impact on his teammates. His perspective of the team and the program has allowed him to be a leader in the locker room."
Paukovits' experiences away from school and lacrosse shaped his perspective on their importance to him.
"I see the value in education now," he said. "It makes easier for me and not stressful and almost fun. I know that work is not going to be any better than going to class. It's not nearly as cool as sleeping in until 11 a.m. and going food shopping in the middle of the day when it's not crowded. It's a nice lifestyle here, and I value it very much.
"I've learned over the years how satisfied you are is what's important. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't playing lacrosse right now. I wouldn't be as happy, I don't think. It's great to be able to come back and expend a ton of energy. I have this biological need to run around, to get my heart rate up. And I get to do that every single morning. It's great. Hopefully I'll still play lacrosse when I am done with school."