on February 4, 2014 - 8:16 AM
, updated February 4, 2014 at 8:29 AM
The 18-year-old was far away from home. The food was terrible.
Even a physically taxing sport like wrestling fails to come close to preparing one for what it's like when your primary job as a member of the United States Army National Guard is training for war.
But the Iroquois High School senior, active private second-class and Section VI wrestling champion's reward for enduring 10 weeks of “hell” could be another crowning achievement on the mat this month along with a chance to wrestle for Uncle Sam's Army in the future.
Paulsen won the large school's Section VI championship at 170 pounds last year but did so despite wrestling at a weight class that wasn't really suited for him. He was disciplined enough to overcome his strength disadvantage in the weight class by being fundamentally sound defensively and waiting to score off other people's mistakes.
The strategy got him to states but taught him he needed more weapons in his arsenal in order to win the championship.
The 5-foot-9, 152-pounder believes he has more now.
A big weapon at his disposal is brute strength as he can use a ground assault of his own to bring foes to his knees in the wrestling circle. He did just that last Friday when he needed roughly 5 seconds to take down his opponent and worked him over on the mat for another 23 en route to the quick pin.
“I'm just pretty much using my tactical strength and stuff to keep pushing forward,” said Paulsen, who will likely be the man to beat this Saturday during the annual Class A Tournament at Starpoint High School. The top five finishers in each weight class advance to the Section VI State Qualifier on Feb. 14 at Niagara County Community College.
“Most of my drill sergeants told me never to quit so that's just one of my things,” said Paulsen, who is 24-5 this season and 126-32 in his scholastic career.
“The military has really helped him develop a really strong work ethic and helped him become mentally tough,” Iroquois coach Steve Hart said. “He's a more complete wrestler now.”
He's quicker and more agile, too.
Paulsen lost 30 pounds during basic training, leaving for Fort Sills, Okla., at 186 pounds. He described boot camp as going through four years-worth of wrestling practice sessions in a 10-week period. Factor in the less than five-star food menu, and it's easy to see why the pounds melted away
“All the work and not having enough time to eat and not wanting to eat because the food sucked …,” said Paulsen. “It was hard work. Honestly, I hope I never do” boot camp “again.”
Which begs the following question? Why join the military in the first place? He's living his childhood dream as joining the Army has been his goal ever since he was little.
“I've always seem them at games holding the flags and I've always said I wanted to be one of them so one day my dream came true,” Paulsen said.
That day was his 17th birthday, the first day he met the age requirement to be able to enlist as he signed an eight-year contract with Uncle Sam. He had to wait until he was 18, though, to participate in boot camp.
So long as he stays in school, he can retain active status and be non-deployable.
How much of a passion is the military? Check out Paulsen's body art for that answer. He has two tattoos expressing his love for country and the Army.
His right arm is adorned with a colorful mural with the red, white and blue American flag, Uncle Sam at the base, a couple of grenades, helicopter, tanks and a tribute to the fallen heroes from the 9-11 Memorial. Across the left side of his chest (right over his heart) is fist and chain with the word 'respect.'
At first, Paulsen's teammates thought he was joking when he informed them he enlisted. They soon came to realize that's not a joking matter and thought it was pretty cool. Paulsen said he has two teammates who have expressed interest in joining the military.
The Chiefs have the utmost respect for him.
“He's a good example for the younger kids on the team,” said Tristen Almeter, who is 36-4 at 120 pounds. “He usually steps up and tells kids what to do and to step in line when they're fooling around.”
Yes, the Army has accelerated Paulsen's maturation. His mom, Beth, wants him to try living like a kid, again, but accepts the fact Andrew really can't do that.
He's a role model now. He's held to higher standards than most high school seniors because he's in the military. She said the Army keeps tabs on him, too, since he's on active duty.
His parents are proud of him.
“He came home a better person,” said Vince Paulsen, Andrew's father. “He came home a man.”
Andrew hopes to someday be able to wrestle for the U.S. Army freestyle and Greco team that participates in international competition. He becomes eligible for joining the team after his second year of enlistment.
He also wants to continue his wrestling career in college. If he doesn't get a full-ride scholarship, the Army will cover half of his tuition costs. Before all that, though, he wants to turn his state championship dream into reality. The process begins this weekend.
It will be tough, but it's a challenge Paulsen willing accepts, and something one would expect from a man willing to put his own life on the line to defend the freedom of others.
“I just have to keep working hard,” he said.