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'The Real World': Ryan Conklin talks about getting called back to Iraq

March 18, 2009 |  7:46 am

Ryan_singles_048_3"The Real World: Brooklyn's" Ryan Conklin is only 23, but he's preparing to serve his second tour of duty in Iraq. He first enlisted after 9/11, when he was just 17, and several times since has narrowly escaped with his life. He also experienced the death of a close friend.

On tonight's episode, Conklin will get the call back into action, which he describes as devastating. (He's scheduled to go back on April 15.) Last week, he phoned in from Camp Shelby, Miss., where he's training with other military members of the Individual Ready Reserve, to explain how he's adjusted to the unexpected situation and why he feels lucky to have been selected to be on the umpteenth iteration of an MTV reality show.

What have you been doing since being called back?
We’re training, actually, it's re-training for all the IRR guys who’ve been out of the Army for a few years. We’re just running through weapons systems, shooting weapons, getting back into the mode, taking classes, just trying to remember everything. They’re having to teach us new things because a lot has changed. We’re working seven days a week, trying to get last-minute training in.

What went through your mind when you found out that you would be going back to Iraq? During the season, you said several times you hoped this wouldn’t happen.
It sucked. When I got the call, I was playing pool with Scott. I remember picking up the phone and someone started asking me how the Veterans Day parade was. At first I didn’t even recognize who it was, but it was my brother. He just sounded so down in the dumps, I had never heard him like that! He told me he got the letter I'd been dreading and everything just changed. My mind was going a mile a minute. Everything disappeared, Scott, the cameras, I was just absorbed in that phone call. At first I wanted so bad for my brother to say he was joking, but he wasn’t. 

Did the cameras back off?
Man, I would have loved to have that. But they’re there all the time and that was near the end of my experience so I knew the rules. Cameras are there, but I was in such a daze, I didn’t even see them. When I watched the episode you’ll see tonight for the first time it was like watching someone else. I didn’t really remember any of that. My mind was racing so fast.

What were your roommates' reactions?
I didn’t tell them immediately. I needed to process. There were a million questions: What the hell is going on with my life? Am I ready? Can I do it? Where am I going? What’s it like over there? How’s my family going to take it? How am I going to break it to my girlfriend? I also thought about how my roommates were going to take it. I didn't want to bum them out for the rest of the time we were there. It was near the end [of our time] and everyone was doing good things and pursuing their own careers. I didn’t want to bring the tone down. I just had to come to terms with it for myself first, and if anything, I wanted to appreciate the rest of the time even more. So I put up a good front and I tried to stay my own immature, crazy self, but it wasn’t that easy. You’ll see when I tell the roommates, each approach was different. I figured out what was best for each of them.

When you were selected to be on "The Real World," did you know you wanted to talk about your experiences in the Army?
First, I was stoked. I couldn’t believe they picked me. It sounded like the easiest job in the world; all I would have to do is be me. Then I thought I was in a good spot. I could focus on some real bigger issues at hand, such as veterans. I wasn’t a big political advocate in my day, but if I could share some experiences and turn some people, educate them in an easy, fun way, if they could get to know me and listen to me, that’s a platform I was willing to take. I had no problem exposing anything about me.

On the show, you seemed very opinionated about the war. What are you hoping viewers take away from watching you?
I wanted  people to know that even though, yes, I was in the military, and yes, I was a front-line infantryman, I turned out alright. You can go and do things over there and see things you wouldn’t want other people to see, but you can turn out alright. That’s why I didn’t bring up being in the Army at first. I wanted my housemates to get to know me for me. In turn, I wanted viewers to see that first and then go, "Oh, he also served in the Army and in Iraq and was an infantryman." The demographic for "The Real World," I wanted them to see that it’s not only our demographic, it’s our generation over there serving. When I was first in Iraq, I wasn’t even old enough to drink in America. This many years into the war, I wanted people to remember, especially younger people, that it’s us over there. It’s been five years and I’m sick of seeing news about celebrities going to rehab or Angelina adopting a new baby, and oh, by the way, two soldiers died in Iraq today. I wanted people to wake up because people forget.

You were 17 when you enlisted. Knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?
I don’t live with regrets. I believe everything happens for a reason. If I could go back in time, I’d do the exact same thing because the Army molded me the way I am. If I’d never joined the Army, I would  probably have gone to college, I’d probably be sitting at a desk and there would be millions of people that would never have heard of me. I wouldn’t have the same message that I do now.

In one episode, you told your roommates, “We’re not the world’s Army. We need to stop fighting for other countries.” How do you feel about having to go back to Iraq?
I still feel the same way. Obviously, America’s got plenty of problems on its own, whether it’s economy or the borders or other issues. I know we’re a superpower and that’s always been in our history. But, and this is strictly just my opinion, I don’t speak for others, I’m from Gettysburg and we have plenty of Civil War monuments and when this country had its civil war … I’m not saying Iraq’s having a civil war, but other countries stay out of our business when we’re having problems.

You’re older now. Are you doing anything differently to prepare yourself mentally?
I’m more focused. I’m going to a unit where there’s going to be people who have not deployed. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, I’m from a household of teachers, so it’s no problem passing on my knowledge if it’s going to help someone else. If I see someone doing something wrong, I’ll speak up more. This time around, I’m not doing it for the career -- I got out for a reason. I’m here to serve my time. I’m going to make sure I make it back and I’m going to make sure everyone around me makes it back.

How satisfied are you with how you’ve been portrayed on "The Real World"?
I’m actually very happy. What they have is what happened. I was me. I’m glad they showed the good sides and bad sides of me because I’m human and I know I make mistakes. I was very happy with the episode you’re going to see tonight. They really showed a lot of things I got involved in with the veterans. A lot of people in the house were very supportive and inquisitive about it. It’s my favorite episode, even though the last part is kind of dismal. But this is real. Getting called back is a part of this war that I guarantee that people aren’t aware of or aren’t thinking about.

-- Denise Martin

Photo credit: MTV