Captain Erin Heupel Gorham ’04 thought her mother was “absolutely crazy” when she made an appointment for the Westmont freshman to see an Army recruiter. Erin went reluctantly, but realized the military could help her pay for college. A few months later, she decided to enlist and spent the summer of 2001 in boot camp. “It was tough,” she says, “but I enjoyed it once I got into it. Everyone was in the same boat, and we had to learn how to work together. I got into great shape and made a lot of friends.”
Erin returned to Westmont attached to a National Guard unit, expecting to train once a month. Then 9-11 changed everything, and her unit was called up. “I freaked out,” Erin says. “All five of my siblings drove to Santa Barbara to see me off.” But she wasn’t eligible to deploy because she hadn’t received any job training. “I was relieved I could stay in school, but sad not to go with my unit,” she says.
The next summer, during a nine-week course for unit supply specialists, an instructor asked why she wasn’t enrolled in ROTC since she was attending college. Erin signed up for ROTC at UC Santa Barbara during her junior year and received her commission shortly after graduating from Westmont with a degree in communication studies.
She reported to the Aviation Brigade, a helicopter unit at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in 2005 as a second lieutenant and personnel officer. “The workload shocked me,” she says. “I often stayed until 10 p.m. doing paperwork for deployments, job changes, awards and evaluations. But I liked helping people and learned a lot.” A few months later, she assumed her current position, executive assistant/office manager for the brigade commander.
Erin continued this work during a 15-month deployment to Iraq. “It wasn’t a traumatizing experience,’ she says. “I only left base to fly to another base. You build camaraderie with people when you go to war and spend 24 hours a day with them. We had a true feeling of accomplishment and being part of history.”
Despite working long hours, Erin found the days passed slowly in Iraq, especially as she and fellow soldier Mike Gorham, an Army logistics officer and company commander, had scheduled a September 2007 wedding. When their deployment was extended to October, they changed the date to Nov. 11 and were married in North Carolina.
Erin and Mike plan to leave active duty in February, enter the reserves and move from Hawaii to North Carolina to be near her sister. “I wouldn’t trade my military experience for anything,” Erin says. “I met wonderful people, and I will miss them very much.”