Towson junior John Paukovits spent a portion of this week worrying about Valentine's Day. It was a world away from his concerns as a soldier in the U.S. Army.

Twice in seven years, Paukovits was deployed to Iraq.. Honorably discharged in 2011, Paukovits acted on his desire to pursue a college degree and rediscovered his love for lacrosse at Towson, where he is now a short-stick defensive midfielder.

"Socially, it is a little bit different, but on the team, I feel like I fit right in," said Paukovits, who at 28 is the oldest player on the Tigers roster by six years. "I don't see any downside to it except that I didn't play for seven years."

Paukovits' journey began in spring 2003 when he was a starting midfielder at Southampton College in Long Island, N.Y. He transferred to Stony Brook for the following season but dropped out after a few months because he grew disenchanted with college. He worked three jobs before deciding to join the Army in 2004 because he "wanted to do something with my life."

After 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, Paukovits joined the Stryker Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Lewis in Washington and was deployed to Baghdad in July 2006. For 15 months, he walked almost daily patrols through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in insurgent territory.

"It was like a normal day-to-day thing," Paukovits said of possibly being targeted by insurgents. "… The highest threat was the [improvised explosive devices]. I would say that's where we took most of our injuries. You have a ton of education and training on them, but when it's hidden in a cement block somewhere, it's only a matter of time before you hit one that you're not expecting. I compare it to a shark attack. It's very rare, but when you're in the ocean, you're constantly thinking about it."

After returning to the United States, Paukovits was stationed with the Washington detachment of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard, assisting in funerals and memorials at Arlington National Cemetery. He was deployed again to Baghdad, this time in charge of helping Iraqi police run their own prisons.

Standly Villiers, Paukovits' superior in the Old Guard who also ran missions with Paukovits in Baghdad, said fellow soldiers respected Paukovits, who discussed his love for lacrosse.

"I know that he was very passionate about lacrosse and about getting into the right school to keep that passion alive," said Villiers, now a tactical noncommissioned officer at West Point. "He even had his lacrosse gear there in Iraq with him. Every time he would have some free time, he would be bouncing [a ball] against something. He was just always practicing."

Facing his impending release from the Army in 2011, Paukovits sought to earn a degree and play lacrosse. He emailed several coaches, including Maryland's John Tillman, Duke's John Danowski and Lehigh's Kevin Cassese (a classmate of Paukovits' at Comsewogue High in New York), but Towson's Tony Seaman was the first one to reply and invite him to campus.

Shawn Nadelen, who succeeded Seaman in May 2011, met Paukovits and came away impressed.

"I wanted to get to know John as a person," Nadelen recalled. "Obviously, he has experience in the military, and I wanted to talk to him about my vision for the program and how I felt he fit into it before he played on the field. I didn't have any reservations at all."

His military background kept Paukovits fit, but he conceded that he wasn't used to the sprinting and sudden change of direction required for lacrosse. He kept at it and said he finally became comfortable with his conditioning and his teammates midway through last season.

"I started to play a lot better on the defensive side of the ball, and then all of a sudden, the starting defensemen were saying, 'We need him on the field,' " Paukovits said. "That's when I was like, 'Great, I can play lacrosse again and run with these guys.' I use my former lacrosse experience to communicate on the field. On the field, I'm not worried about covering ground balls as much as I'm talking to the defense, and they like that."

Paukovits' age resulting in some teasing from teammates who called him "Uncle John," and even Nadelen called him "Sergeant" for a little while. But senior goalkeeper Andrew Wascavage (St. Mary's Ryken) said Paukovits' age is not an issue with his teammates.

"Everyone can kick it with him and talk to him like he's one of the guys," Wascavage said. "He's definitely older and he's more mature. He comes out and we hang out with him, but he also does his own thing. I imagine we've become kind of cumbersome to him, a bunch of 18- and 21-year-olds hanging around, and he's 28. Probably bothers him more than it bothers us."

The Tigers voted for four captains in the fall, and Paukovits was chosen along with Wascavage, junior midfielder Thomas DeNapoli and sophomore midfielder Rob Zoppo (Calvert Hall).

"I was terrible in the fall when I first got here, and they saw me develop like the freshmen and be able to overcome the challenges, and I think they respected that," Paukovits said. "At first, to the guys, I was just kind of like, 'OK, you're here for charity and support in the locker room.' Now, it's like, 'This guy is really here to play with us, and he's going to be there right next to us in the fourth quarter.' "

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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