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It was the fall of 2014 and the newly-christened pledges were eager to wage war on sobriety during our semesterly 501 party. I spotted a large, bearded man in fatigues, nursing a beer and talking to the incumbent president. I didn’t recognize the mountain of a man, but he arrived that night intent on rushing. Unfortunately for him, rush had closed the evening prior and he was left out in the cold. We flirted with the idea of ghost pledging the bearded man in fatigues, but ultimately decided to bid him to rush in the Spring.
Fast forward four months. I sat across the table from the beard-clad man known as Specialist Shaw, in a blackened room in the corner of the house, extending an invitation to pledge our chapter. Shaw was a sizable, yet very quiet and humble man. He had just wrapped up his last tour in Afghanistan and sought to forge bonds similar to those in his barracks. At first, our chapter of youngsters was eager to ask him all the questions he didn’t care to field about his tours of active duty. As a medic, one could assume Shaw had seen plenty of shit he preferred not to talk about.
Despite being the oldest of the group, Specialist Shaw wasn’t the vocal leader of his pledge class. He told me on a few occasions, as a medic, he preferred to “lead from behind.” He was partial to playing a supporting roll in the cast of pledges by providing the alcohol and trips to IHOP to take the stave off the post-lineup sting. Having served our country for four years before he enrolled at Pitt, Shaw always put the needs of his pledge brothers and the actives ahead of his own, though he had his demons.
His nerves had been stretched to their limits. His time as a medic in Afghanistan still burdened him during his first undergraduate year and made adjusting to civilian life that much more difficult. I’d receive calls from Specialist late in the evening and well into the morning, saying drill was a disaster that day and he was on his way down to my apartment on lower campus to sip a beer, watch Archer and bullshit. He told me he had trouble sleeping due to all the things that still haunted him. During his class’ most trying week, he told his brothers he once held men the same age as them during their final moments and he was determined not to let anyone slip through his grasp again. That’s the kind of shit that sticks with a man for life.
As the semester wore on, Shaw took on a few different roles. He worked as bouncer pledge, should a party-goer get a little pugnacious. We counted on him to usher drunk girls home and throw the sloppy fucks out into the street. We reminded his pledge brothers on a few occasions, that if the going got tough, trust in Shaw. He balanced pledging with work, drill, class, church and adjusting to college and civilian life. Not only did his pledge class lean on him for strength, he inspired even the most stubborn and complacent of actives to pull the embattled pledges through their final weeks of pledgeship. As his class struggled with deaths in their families, arrests, relationship issues, debilitating depression, and one even being diagnosed with MS, Specialist continued to push them towards the ultimate goal: initiation.
By this past spring, the sight of Shaw had become a rarity. He lived a few miles west of campus and stayed busier than ever. Much to everyone’s disappointment, Shaw couldn’t make last semester’s 501. He worked as a delivery driver on nights he didn’t have drill and typically wasn’t off work until midnight. Determined not to let Specialist miss the festivities, a brother phoned his work and called for delivery. When Shaw approached the door, a brother pulled him inside, while one pushed a beer to his face and another closed the door behind him. Even for just ten minutes, the room was electrified by the sight of our crestfallen brother.
Shaw recently announced his intent to rejoin the ranks of active duty and will have to pause his time as a member of our chapter. I like to imagine he’ll return in a few years as an active brother and perhaps even take the oath of pledge master. Maybe he’ll bring with him stories of true brotherhood and heroism.
Regardless of whether he intends to return to Western Pennsylvania and resume his studies and an active role in our chapter, we hope he wears our badge proudly and continues quietly taking care of business while he’s abroad..
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