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Young veteran’s journey to USF graduation day

BRADENTON

Sean Abene gets his degree today.

He graduates summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in information technology from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

Darn near had a 4.0 GPA, too, if not for a couple of A- grades.

“I’m disappointed,” the 27-year-old said.

He shouldn’t be.

Sean Abene has already received an education in real life.

A combat tour in Iraq will do that.

So will another tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The 2002 Bayshore High School alum’s journey from wearing Kevlar and carrying a weapon to donning a USF cap and gown was a long one, indeed.

“I don’t think too much of it until somebody asks me, ‘What was it like?’” Abene said. “I look at it as two great experiences of my life. I wouldn’t do anything different. Most people will never see that part of the world.”

His reason for joining the Florida National Guard was practical: Get Uncle Sam to pay for college.

It just took Abene a little while to get there.

His oufit, the 53rd Infantry Brigade, was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom in December 2002 and deployed a month later.

Their duties were many -- force protection, quick reaction to support other units in trouble, patrols, guarding prison camps, you name it.

“We were in perfect position to see more action than we did,” Abene said. “I never had to fire my weapon. It makes you realize how lucky we were that whole time, thank God.”

His family is grateful.

“It was scary, him going to Iraq,” said Mike Abene, Sean’s dad. “I was always worried about him, but he’s a great young man. I’m proud of him.”

After returning home in October 2004, Abene enrolled at Manatee Community College, switched to the Air Force National Guard -- “More education,” he said -- and juggled classes between military obligations.

“I had to withdraw a couple of times, but the school worked with me,” he said. “I appreciated that.”

There were other things he appreciated about MCC, too.

“The military made me want to get the most out of everything, even a simple class,” Abene said. “I was older than most of the kids. They were right out of high school, not listening to the teacher, making excuses on assignments, getting a C to pass a test and being happy with it. They didn’t take it seriously.

“You don’t realize how good you have it here. Things we take for granted.”

Things like going to the grocery store without worrying about it.

“Overseas, they can’t casually walk into a store,” he said. “They could get blown up.”

Abene finished his AA degree and deployed in January 2008 to Afghanistan where he was involved in setting up tactical satellite communications in remote areas.

He was there just 5-1/2 months, but his impressions linger.

“A lot of people there just want to live their lives,” Abene said. “The Muslims aren’t the problem. It’s the Taliban. They’re happy we’re there. Even though there are instances of collateral damage, they know we’re there to help. They want us there to help. They want to build themselves up, as well.”

His college education continued once he got back home and plunged into classwork at USF.

“The majority of students there are non-traditional,” Abene said. “Most have a fulltime job. They’re at the same point as me. They want to get most out of class, listening to the professor, not interrupting. I fit in more.”

Sunita Lodwig, one of his professors, noticed.

“I was impressed with his thirst for knowledge, seriousness and dedication,” she said. “He wanted to understand things, not just know something to get a grade. Then when I found out he was a veteran, things fell into place.”

Sean Abene’s mother is glad to see this day arrive at the Manatee Civic and Convention Center.

“I’m just blown away,” Tamara Lynn Furlough said. “My heart was like Russian roulette with him going to Iraq, then com- ing back for school, then going off to Afghanistan and returning to school again.

“He just keeps going forward.”

Abene’s journey hasn’t been without sorrow for fellow soldiers who are no longer with us.

Especially those who died by their own hand.

“A lot of guys in my company battled depression, but it never really affected me as much as it did them,” he said. “I always felt I had a grip on reality.”

Like believing one day he’d hear “Pomp and Circumstance.”

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Abene said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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