Retired Marine, War Vet Charts New Path on Berkeley College Cross Country Team

Retired Marine, War Vet Charts New Path on Berkeley College Cross Country Team

Around The USCAA - 8/21/14

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Retired Marine, War Vet Charts New Path on Berkeley College Cross Country Team

The manhunt took them across the desert and through the night.

Somewhere in the desolate wastelands of southern Afghanistan, the enemy lurked.

First Sgt. John Partin and his Marines were exhausted. They barely would sleep over the next 48 hours as the pursuit bled into the next day and the day after that.

Insurgents had strung together six IEDs (improvised explosive devices) across a major highway. They detonated them as an SUV filled with civilian contractors drove over it.

Then they raided the mangled car, stealing anything they could carry.

That included the bodies of the contractors.

"We spent the next 48 hours chasing these guys across the desert, trying to get the bodies back to send home," Partin said in his Southern twang.

It was just one anecdote, one episode from two combat deployments that Passaic's Partin served in the war on terror. One story from a life he now has left behind.

After 22 years in the Marine Corps, he has started anew as a 41-year-old freshman and cross-country runner at Berkeley College. He's studying criminal justice at the Woodland Park campus among classmates and teammates half his age — the age of his two adult children.

It's all part of a trying transition after spending his adult life in the Corps, including combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Sept. 1, Partin — who reached the rank of sergeant major, in charge of Marine recruitment in New Jersey — traded the battlefield for the classroom, Parris Island for the cross-country course.

"It's been difficult," said the 5-foot-8, 152-pound Partin. He works full time during the day for a Clifton-based construction company and attends class at night "It's an eye-opener. Civilian life is totally different.

"Not waking up every morning at 04[00], putting on the uniform. There's no have-to."

Partin looks like he came from central casting.

High-and-tight haircut. Trim physique. And the hint of a tattoo on his left biceps, peaking from under the sleeve of his crisp, white Marine Corps golf shirt. He still is working on his transformation to civilian.

"I'm trying to get better. I stopped calling everybody ma'am and sir," joked Partin, an Ohio native who grew up in the "real country, real small town" of South Lebanon, near the Kentucky border. He joined the Marines after high school.

He plans to study in Berkeley's national-security program, with his sights set on working for the Department of Homeland Security.

But Partin is more than a middle-aged student plotting a new course. He's an athlete competing against kids.

He has run four meets for Berkeley: A five-mile course in 43 minutes, 3 seconds (finishing 70th out of 96), a 24:19 5K (146th out of 210), a 37:14 five-mile and a 40:04 five-mile (196th out of 226).

"He's like 10 years younger than my dad," said teammate Jeison Martinez, 22. "I just thought it was pretty cool that at his age he's starting to go to school."

The former drill sergeant — "I was a terror," Partin admits — could not help but take a leadership role.

"He's a natural leader, like a second coach," said Michael Lincoln, Berkeley's cross-country coach. "The kids all look up to him.

"He's a natural leader, like a second coach," said Michael Lincoln, Berkeley's cross-country coach. "The kids all look up to him.

"Plus he drives a purple Dodge Challenger. The kids go crazy."

It's a far different world than southern Afghanistan, where he served three years ago as a member of Second Tank Battalion, Delta Company.

It was a Biblical wasteland, but one equipped with cars, cellphones and IEDs.

Homes were built with mud bricks. Farmers used handmade tools. Goat herders roamed the landscape with their flocks. The 119 soldiers under Partin's authority patrolled four Taliban-infested villages.

He survived seven or eight close calls with bullets. He held his thumb and forefinger 3 inches apart to show how close one came to finding him.

In another incident, a car careened toward Partin at a vehicle checkpoint and slid sideways before four men opened fire with AK-47s.

"That was the one where I said, 'Whoa. I may not have come back from this,' " said Partin, who earned three medals for meritorious service.

Still there are scars.

Partin and his men found two of the civilian contractors' bodies from the IED attack. He saw a 4-year-old child "blown to bits" in a field. And he once was covered in the blood of a fellow Marine who stood on an IED when it exploded.

"I was wearing him," Partin said.

But he has moved on. The cross-country course has become his new proving ground.

"He's competitive as hell," Lincoln said.

"It is giving me that additional challenge," Partin retorted. "I can't sit on the porch and drink tea."


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