A love of animals and a goal of helping heal them as a veterinarian technician put Marlene L. Roll on an unanticipated path to the First Gulf War.
Roll spent her freshman year at Canton Agricultural and Technological College in New York's North Country, but the tuition bills proved more expensive than she had anticipated. So she enlisted as an Army Reservist to pay for her college education through the GI Bill.
"My military specialty was operating room technician, which was similar to veterinarian technician, only different patients," she quipped.
But Roll never returned to Canton, discovering another avenue more satisfying in her goal to care for animals.
"I became a certified groomer and eventually designed, built and operated my own kennel business," said Roll, who in time earned a business degree at Erie Community College.
Her first few years of Reserve duty were quiet. But when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait, triggering a military response from a U.S. led coalition, her experience shifted. Roll said she never imagined she would be called up and sent to a war zone.
"I was actually very stunned. My impression was that if there was a war, Reservists stayed stateside replacing active duty troops sent to the war," she said. "I was going to ECC at the time and working as nanny for a family with two young boys."
Marlene L. Roll, 52
War zone: First Gulf War
Years of service: 1986-1994
Most prominent honors: Liberation of Kuwait Medal; Southwest Asia Service Medal; 2 Bronze Service Stars; U.S. Army Reserve Achievement Medal, 1 Oak Leaf Cluster; National Defense Service Medal
Specialty: operating room technician
But once her medical unit was assembled, she deployed with the 365th Evacuation Hospital to Oman.
"We were to handle anything and everything. We built a thousand-bed hospital with the Air Force. We were designed to take the injured right off of airplanes, but we never had to implement triage," she said.
The war was so quickly won, she explained, that the types of medical emergencies handled by the 365th were mostly minor.
"We had been on pins and needles waiting for casualties, but it boiled down to broken ankles, appendicitis and small routine surgeries," she said.
Before returning home in March 1991, weeks after the war was over, she said she was given a one-day pass to do some sightseeing with fellow Reservists.
"In the less developed areas outside Oman's capital city of Muscat, it was like walking back into the Bible. It's the dress that the people wear, it hasn't changed since then," she said.
Most of the little shops in the city were family owned. Roll was surprised to see a Pizza Hut that she and her companions eagerly patronized.
"We ordered a large cheese and pepperoni pie and I'm not sure what it was we ate, but it was a far cry from the cheese and pepperoni pies we have here," she said.
When she returned home, she said she made a point of satisfying her hankering for a good slice at Santino's Pizza Shack in Elma. But more than pizza, Roll said, she was grateful to be home safe and sound and with an even greater appreciation for privacy.
"You don't realize the loss of privacy until you are living with a group of people, even as close as you are with your fellow soldiers. Everyone needs a little elbow room," she said.
Roll completed her business degree and continued as a Reservist until 1994 for a total of eight years of service. In civilian life, she found success as a groomer and kennel operator. Her first was called Tri-County Kennel in Alden and she later ran Greyhound Stay-tion, which specialized in serving rescued greyhounds.
And while her military service had unexpectedly took her to war, Roll said it also unexpectedly prepared her for a career change when she closed down her kennel in 2010 to accept an appointment as the director of Erie County Veteran Services.
"I loved it. I learned a lot. I met a lot of people. I felt like I was doing something good," Roll said.
But when then-Erie County Executive Chris Collins lost his re-election bid to Mark Poloncarz, Roll was replaced. Yet her services were needed elsewhere. The Monroe County executive, Roll said, hired her to re-energize that county's veteran services office, a job that lasted about a year.
And Roll is still involved in helping veterans while employed as a service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in downtown Buffalo.
But that is not all she does. In 2015, she was elected the first woman commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of New York.
"I put about 34,000 miles on my car all across the state visiting different VFW posts and attending ceremonies and dinners," said Roll, who has been married to her husband, James, for three decades.She currently serves as a volunteer on the VFW's national women's committee and the organization's national awards and citations committee.
As for her war service, Roll says she frequently thinks about that time in her life: "When you're going, you're afraid, but on the hindsight end of it, because I wasn't injured, I can say what an experience. It's given me an understanding for the job I do as a veterans service officer. You can't be trained for that kind of understanding."