A Man of Honor
It could happen to Eli Borton at any time.
Maybe he will get the phone call while partying with his friends on a random weekend.
Maybe it will happen while he is cheering on his teammates during a pivotal Mid-American Conference wrestling meet at Rose Arena.
It might even happen like it did three years ago – in the form of a voicemail.
They might call today. Or they might not call at all.
It’s a waiting game that Borton, a sophomore on the wrestling team, is all too familiar with.
“I remember getting the voicemail (in December 2003); I just had kind of a blank stare on my face,” Borton, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, said. “I was just getting out of practice. I didn’t tell anyone right away. I just took a shower and got dressed. Then I finally told coach (Tom Borelli). Of course, he was very understanding.
“Still, it was one of the most difficult, shocking experiences of my life.”
Borton will never forget that voicemail. His superior informed Borton he was being deployed to the Middle East in the summer of 2004 to assist American troops in the war in Iraq. And he knows his superior could call again at any time.
But the toughest experience won’t be listening to another voicemail. And it won’t be spending another six months dodging enemy bullets and rocket propelled grenade fire in Iraq, knowing he could be killed any second.
The hardest thing will be saying goodbye.
“We were set to leave in June 2004, and I had four days to spend time with my family and say goodbye,” Borton said. “That was the toughest thing, saying goodbye to my family for the last time.”
Borton’s mother, April Borton, said it was tough to say goodbye to her son, but said she was prepared for it.
“I was pretty calm about the whole thing, because we all knew the reality of what could happen when (Eli) told me in high school he wanted to be in the Marines,” April Borton said. “I didn’t worry too much because I knew he had God on his side. I just said to God, ‘I’ll let you take care of him.’”
Eli Borton’s tour in Iraq lasted from Aug. 30, 2004 to Feb. 18, 2005. Borton, a member of Bridge Company Alpha, said his main duty as a combat engineer in Iraq was to help construct bridges demolished during warfare.
One of his most memorable jobs was rebuilding a bridge about 20 minutes south of Baghdad that had been blown up by 800 pounds of explosives.
Borton said the job took three days, and his crew worked under heavy gunfire, mortar and RPG attack the whole time.
Unlike combat soldiers, Borton said his job strictly was to build bridges. If firefights ensued, it was his job to keep working through them, while other soldiers were specifically out there to fight back.
Still, there were times when he had no choice but to engage in combat.
“You always hear bullets ricochet off the ground, and you don’t know where it’s coming from,” Borton said. “You just kind of start shooting in the direction you think they are coming from. But you’re not going to stop (working). It’s not your job.
“Yeah, there are times when you get scared. But there’s no seizing up; it’s just natural instinct to (fight back). There’s no hesitation.”
Life in Iraq
When he wasn’t working a normal 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. day, Borton said life in Iraq was pretty boring.
And his living conditions weren’t much to talk about either.
“The first three months, we lived in little tents with no air conditioning,” he said. “It was 20 men to a tent, all of us sleeping on little cots. It smelled horrible.”
As for a social life, Borton said there wasn’t much to do besides eat and work out every day.
“There’s really nothing to do over there,” he said. “But with two months left, it got better. We moved to better trailers, ones that had air conditioning. Even had a PlayStation 2. That was cool; I got to play ‘Grand Theft Auto’ all the time.”
While soldiers were thousands of miles from home, Borton sad it was pretty easy to stay in touch with his family. He said he could talk on the phone all the time.
That may sound convenient, but Borton said it actually made his stay worse.
“It made me want to be back home even more, hearing their voice all the time,” he said. “I mean, it’s a good thing to hear their voice, but it did make it hard.”
Welcome home, Eli
When Borton came back from overseas, April Borton threw a big celebration.
He said she had put signs that read “Welcome Home Eli” at every freeway exit ramp on his drive back home.
“It was better than any Christmas I’d ever had. It was a big party,” April said. “What a sacrifice (Eli) made. “He could have just stayed in school and not worry about going over there. But he’s a very committed young man, and we’re all so proud of him.”
Borton said his time in Iraq taught him to not take things for granted. He said he takes a lot more pride in everything he does.
That attitude translates well to the wrestling mat, said Ben Kelto, a junior wrestler who works out with Borton at practice.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the guy complain,” Kelto said. “He’s very disciplined. He has a lot of respect for people of higher authority. He doesn’t talk back.”
Borton is a backup at 174 pounds to junior Brandon Sinnott, and he rarely performs in competition.
But, much like that phone call that could come any day, Borton said he is fine with waiting.
“I don’t want to do anything but the toughest in life,” he said. “It’s why I chose wrestling. Being on the wrestling team makes me a better Marine. I have faith in coach Borelli. If I work hard enough and do the things I have to do, I know I can do well.”
If the Marines ever call again, Corp. Borton said he’ll be ready.
But in the meantime, he isn’t going to let it affect his life as a student and wrestler.
“(The call) could come tomorrow, or it could be two years down the road,” Borton said. “You never know. But I’m not going to let myself worry about it.”
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