It’s often said that the Army is about people. Ask any veteran, and he’ll tell you: his time in the service is indelibly marked by the men with whom he served, trained and fought. There is simply no stronger personal bond than that which is forged through military service.
During my two ensuing years as a civilian, most of my nostalgia for the Army sprang from the relationships I’d formed with fellow soldiers. In five years on active duty, it was during periods of great adversity – be it extreme discomfort, exhaustion, fear or homesickness – that I made my very best friends. I’ve often lamented to Molly that I would never again enjoy that sort of camaraderie. I think a lot of veterans would say the same.
So for all the strife this recent call-up has caused in my life, I’m grateful for the soldiers I’ve met since donning the uniform again. Many of them find themselves in the same situation as mine, ripped from their new lives to return to a virtually forgotten battlefield. Somehow that makes it all much easier for me to bear.
During these last few weeks in transit, there are several soldiers who I have come to know well and of whom I have become quite fond. We first banded together at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, just before deploying, the only eight soldiers of 50 in our initial troupe who were bound for the desert city of Gardez in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains.
Our motley assortment included a construction contractor, a paralegal, mechanics, technicians, and me, a journalist. I’ve spent hours getting to know them over meals, in barracks or at the gym. All of us, with one exception, were call-ups from the individual ready reserves. In other words, all of them were involuntarily recalled to duty for a fresh tour in Afghanistan.
Corporal Tim Blankenship of Portland, Oregon, was working as a telecommunications technician and edging toward his Bachelor’s degree when the call came. His wife of six years is holding down their brand new house in Vancouver, Washington. Despite it all, Blankenship, 25, maintains an impossibly cheery disposition that has kept our group moving through the blazing inferno of Kuwait and the mind-numbing, days-long transportation out of Kabul. Now in Gardez, he has accepted his indefinite and thankless assignment as a gate guard with humility. Still, he is eager to “get outside the wire” and to see some action before the year is out. I admire his enthusiasm, but I caution him to be careful what he asks for.
Specialist Leo Hendrick is a tall, slim 34-year-old motorcycle mechanic who sports a clean-shaven head and a tapestry of tattoos. Serious and eccentric, he smokes a pipe each night outside, under the moonlight, and boasts of his extensive domestic gun collection. Yet Hendrick’s one weakness is his young family back home in Iowa: a wife and an infant son, who he refers to as “my little guy.” It’s the only time I’ve witnessed his carefully cultivated veneer of intimidation melt away to reveal the softer man inside. Hendrick worships his wife, who holds a Masters degree and works for Kaplan Publishing. “Compared to her, I’m just a knuckle-dragger,” he says playfully. “My wife just keeps me around to open jars and fix things around the house when they break.” He is impossible not to like.
Sergeant First Class Brian Mauro has been my closest companion on this deployment. A confident, thoughtful man who had a rough upbringing in rural Massachusetts, Mauro found paradise in his adopted home of Georgia in the 1990s. Despite serving his third deployment in as many years, he spends lots of time on the phone directing the completion of his dream house near Macon, where he works as a mechanic at Freightliner. Mauro is a sort of working man’s intellectual, drawn to political arguments and convinced he is a better man for the hardships he’s endured. A National Guardsman who has seen intense action in some of the worst areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, he is tortured by long separations from his 4-year-old son, A.J. “I didn’t get to see him take his first steps,” Mauro told me one night over dinner in a crowded mess hall in Kabul, his eyes glistening with tears. “It’s hard for me to talk about, you know? My wife put up pictures of me all around the house so he’d know who I was when I got home. And you know what? It worked.”
The rest of the guys in our crew are no less wistful about the homes and families they’ve been forced to leave behind.
Sergeant Raul Gonzales, 28, who is respectful and quiet, leaves a wife and two children back in Austin, Texas. I’ve watched him lie countless hours, fingers interlocked across his stomach, staring up at the underside of a crude top bunk. During these episodes, I like to think that Gonzales is not among us, that he possesses some special power to transport himself from this dreadful place.
Gonzales’ buddy, Corporal Felix Lopez, is the one habitual grump in our group. (In any group of soldiers, there is always at least one.) But Lopez, who is 35 and comes from Orlando, is rarely seen without his cell phone in hand – a portable, digital photo album chock full of photos of his curly-haired young daughter.
Staff Sergeant Justin Boeck, a meaty, blonde-haired 24-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska, works out in the gym twice a day – under orders, he says, from his fiancée, who was alarmed at his weight-loss on a previous Iraq tour. He plans to marry her when he gets home.
I count men like these, and the loved ones who miss them, among the finest Americans I have ever known. They are people who care deeply about their country and complain little though their burden is great. I have no doubt that each man will serve out his tour with honor.
Personally, I feel privileged to have traveled as one of “The Afghan Eight,” as Mauro warmly coined us when we finally arrived in Gardez. I look forward to following their experiences from this little desert outpost of ours.