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Eight Forty-Eight

From Newsroom to Frontline

Layoffs over the last decade have forced thousands of newspaper reporters and editors to search for new gigs or, in some cases, new careers. Local reporter Avian Carrasquillo's lost his job at a Chicago area newspaper a few years ago. Now he's heading to Iraq.

Deadlines, late night meetings, breaking news. That was Avian Carrasquillo's life for nearly four years as a reporter with suburban newspaper the Daily Herald.

CARRASQUILLO: You still have that desire to be one of the first ones out there get the story.

That ended in 2007 when like so many other journalists, Carrasquillo was laid off.

CARRASQUILLO: It's unfortunate that a lot of people aren't able to continue in the career field that they've dedicated so much time to doing.

With newspaper gigs in short supply, Carrasquillo decided to ditch the pen and pad for an apron. He headed to cooking school.

CARRASQUILLO: You watch those shows Top Chef and you think, I like to dabble a little bit, maybe I could do something like that?

But after a year of expensive training at the Le Cordon Bleu Institute here in Chicago, Carrasquillo still couldn't land a job.

So, with a mountain of college and cooking school debt, it was on to Plan B.
CARRASQUILLO: It just happened that I had seen an army recruiter's office and was just curious about that, something that I had been interested in.

NANCY CARRASQUILLO: When he told us, he totally floored us. He says, ‘Mom, I've got something to talk to you and Dad about. We said what, what's going on? He said, ‘I'm going to be going into the Army next week.' I'm like, ‘WHAT?!' I said, ‘Oh my God! Are you sure you want to go?' He said, ‘Yup. I'm absolutely sure.'

Carrasquillo's mom, Nancy had talked her son out of joining the military when he was a teen. But now, at 27, Carrasquillo made up his own mind.

CARRASQUILLO: I decided that I didn't want more of the same. I kind of wanted to try something different. I wanted a challenge.

Historically, as unemployment goes up, so do enlistments into the military. That's also been the case during this recession. Army spokesman Douglas Smith says, the average recruit age is 22.

But he says an increasing number of those joining are older and coming from another career.

SMITH: The experience that someone has who is in their later 20s or even into their 30s has is very good for the Army. That level of experience and maturity that comes with it is ideal for a soldier.

After basic training, the army sent Carrasquillo to Fort Lee in Virginia where he trained in the culinary arts, part of about 150 advance career training options.

Now he's Specialist Carrasquillo of Echo Company 31 Assault Helicopter Battalion.

CARRASQUILLO: There are things that I've learned in culinary school and there are things that I've actually learned on the job in the army making ribs to feed hundreds of people. We went up to Fort Levanworth. They had a big meeting with a lot of officers. We were cooking for colonels, people who had some rank.

Now, Carrsquillo is being shipped off to Iraq where he will patrol, work on projects and possibly fight.

CARRASQUILLO: There was rumors that kind of surfaced a couple of months after I had been there. We were kind of told that it's something that we should expect to do around this time. I'll be out there doing whatever they need me to do.

NANCY CARASQUILLO: In a way, it's a good way to see the universe, but ouch! You know, I'm scared.

Carrasquillo's mom Nancy welcomed him back to their Humbolt Park home, a few weeks before he expects to ship out.

NANCY CARRASQUILLO: He makes the best ribs. And now I tell him he is our official rib maker. (laughter).

Avian Carrasquillo says he could have opted to stay home and search for a job.

CARRASQUILLO: I remember thinking back when we worked at the Herald on how interesting it would be to go out there as a reporter and see what's going on there. But now having the opportunity to go out there first hand, it's a whole different side of it.

Carrasquillo says his unit will be deployed to Iraq for at least a year. He'll be writing about his journey too on Facebook.

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