CAMP SPANN, AFGHANISTAN -- Happy Independence Day from the front! It's hard to believe I am here, with my company, still defending our country. I have been hit by an Improvised Explosive Device 12 times. Twelve! And I don't have a scratch! So I am very grateful to be able to wish you a happy Fourth on behalf of my troops and me.
The Fourth of July is a day we celebrate the independence of our country. People celebrate with family and friends, barbecues, parties, games, food, fun, festivals, parades, musical events and fireworks. Please raise your glass today and remember all the soldiers who have been taken from us, those who have served and are currently serving. These are individuals who know what the taste of freedom is. It is bitter at times but something that we will not compromise and are willing to lay down our lives for.
I can't believe I am still doing this and am here to talk about it; this is my third deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan in six years. Not all of my soldiers have been so lucky. Over time I find it easier to talk about the days in Ramadi and Sadr City when things were crazier and every day you thought it might be your last. So every phone call or every email I was able to share over the past six years with Peter King -- which is the way you have gotten to know me a little bit -- was from the heart because deep down you knew bad things could happen any time.
I am from St. Louis. I am 40 years old. I have been in the Army for 18 years, and now my job is as first sergeant for Headquarters Company, 40th Engineer Battalion, stationed here at Camp Spann. In my military career, I have missed over two-thirds of my wedding anniversaries, too many birthdays of my kids to even mention, my daughter's marriage (yes, I missed my daughter's MARRIAGE), my son's commission into the Army as an officer. I was gone so many times on Christmas that my family expects me to be gone. Yet the family is tight, supportive, and understanding -- an incredible debt I will always owe them. We have an all-American family, and I am so grateful. I do this because I love it, I am proud to wear this uniform, and hopefully I do this so that my children never have to.
Would I change anything? ABSOLUTELY NOT ... Sure I missed things in my family's life, but I am one of those fools who honestly believe I am part of something bigger than myself.
Our company's job has changed some over the years. We used to primarily clear the roads for coalition forces by looking for and disarming IEDs -- and many of our soldiers still do -- but now, every day is a new mission for us. Peter asked me to describe an average day and to tell you what we do, so here goes. We get up about 5:30 a.m. We check on the progress with a local dam project. We assist local health clinics. We provide humanitarian aid. Some of our platoons assist the Afghan Army and teach them how to function as an army on their own. We are involved in digging wells for water, or building dams to help with crops, even with a pistachio farm. Normal missions for us now also have us engaging with elders, police chiefs, security, local governors and school superintendants. It used to be we had minimal contact with the local people unless it was in a bad way. Now we train and educate them. Beats the hell out of being shot at or blown up.
When we get back to base, often our soldiers use the recreational equipment sent to us by your generosity through the Five For Fighting campaign. A lot of guys go to the gym we have set up here and lift weights, which is a great release for them. Thank you for that! We get to bed around 10 o'clock at night.
Every mission requires us to hit the roads in Afghanistan. If you think for a minute that someone is not scheming to hit you with an IED, then you are in trouble. Winds blow tremendously up here now; sand dunes cover the roads in spots and make it even more dangerous because we do not know what could be inside the sand. The roads are all dirt or sand and full of holes, everything looks like it could be containing some sort of explosive. Being on the road for eight to 10 hours and always on the lookout puts a strain on the eyes and brain; it is a serious stressor. We just want every day to be a good day; you know, no death, no IEDs, no suicide bombers.
Our latest project is building two schools from the ground up. Now that is probably something you didn't think soldiers would be doing over here -- building schools. These are projects that greatly impact the people over here. No longer are we kicking in doors and looking for bad guys (not as much anyway). Now we are giving these people something they can grow and call their own. You know that old saying, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime?" Well, we are teaching them to fish.
The school project hits me close to home because I have three daughters. These young little girls, with olive colored skins and big eyes, accept us with arms wide open. They do not have hate in their heart now; I hope they stay that way. The boys are boys, playful and curious; they want to touch our gear, kick a soccer ball or just learn a word or two in English. The thing about youth is that these kids are just living for the moment, nothing else really matters. They are good. They are innocent.
I know there is a lot of debate back home about our mission here. What is our mission over here? I even get confused with that question sometimes. I will tell you this -- in my heart, we want to help the local people and to bring back my soldiers. We all just want to come home. For now, we really believe we are making a difference here. We say, "Winning hearts and minds.'' These people really have nothing, and being able to help and see how grateful they are is gratifying. So many of them are good people, people struggling to make it in life. I used to be really bitter, not intentionally but when you lose so many friends to the enemy you tend to lump them into one pile.
I was mistaken. I don't want my kids to be like that.
The first IED hit on our platoon was in Ramadi, Iraq in July 2006. We were traveling down MSR (Main Supply Route) in a convoy of four armored Hummers. The day was like all others -- scorching hot. The vehicles had no air-conditioning, so add the engine heat and it made the day almost unbearable. The road was paved, but with holes all over it from previous IEDs. I was in the lead vehicle. We heard a loud explosion, and as I looked behind me I saw a large cloud of smoke and nothing else. I called out, "ALL STOP, ALL STOP!'' I jumped out of the vehicle and ran to the cloud of smoke praying that everyone was OK. As I got to the edge of the smoke, the vehicle sputtered and limped forward with damage to the front, two flat tires and a gunner who had his bell rung like no one's business.
Turns out the bomb was buried in a previous hole and patched up with small layer of pavement over the top to conceal it. We all lived through that one and they joked as they rode through the smoke about how they wanted to do that again. No worries. We all got to do that many times as we were hit multiple times over the course of the next two deployments. Luckily for us, and everyone in the area, for every IED that hit us, we found five or more. We thought that was a good ratio. Lots of times we made jokes just to make it through the hard times; Lord knows deep down that none of us wanted to do that again ... If we only knew what was to come the rest of our time.
The ninth time we got hit, on Sept. 26, 2006, we were not so lucky. It happened in Ramadi, a hotbed of trouble at the time in Iraq. We lost Sgt. Allan Bevington of Beaver Falls, Pa., in Ramadi. He was struck by an IED as we were dismounting the vehicles. He was only a couple feet away from me. To this day, every day, I am haunted. IT IS MY FAULT. I know that. I feel that.
The blast was huge. SPC Angelo Regusci was thrown into the canal and knocked unconscious. SPC Omar Huerta was blown back and lost his eye.
Laying there, not moving, was Sgt. Bevington. We got all our guys together and moved to the closest medical facilities. Regusci had to be pulled out of the canal or he would have drowned. Huerta was bandaged up immediately. The hardest part was picking Sgt. Bevington up off the ground, body motionless. No response. We knew right away what happened. He was gone. Setting Sgt. Bevington in the vehicle and driving 15-20 minutes to the medical station was the longest ride in my life. I post on Sgt. Bevington's memorial page every once in awhile when I need to talk about that day.
I came out relatively unscathed. I was blown back, dazed. Turns out I suffered hearing loss in my right ear, and it bled occasionally for a while. I got bad headaches too. But nothing like what I felt for my men.
The next one: On Feb. 26, 2009, I had just arrived to an outpost in Sadr City. One of my platoons was out on mission and I joined them. Not more than 20 minutes after being on the streets in Sadr City did an EFP (Explosively Formed Penetrator) IED strike one of my vehicles. Corporal Brian Connelly was killed immediately. The scene was crazy, smoke and blood everywhere, soldiers trying to cordon off the area and look for a trigger man. That was a scene I will never forget. We had to transport Spc. Connelly back to base.
An hour before he was killed, Spc. Connelly was joking with me about girls, and we were talking about home -- him in New Jersey, me in St. Louis. I broke down, sitting there with the medic as I watched the body bag zipped up so he could be sent home. The sight of him there, not moving ... I broke down.
I don't let people see me break down, but I do.
Those are not the only soldiers I have lost during the last three rotations but they hit me square in the face every day. I would be a fool to think that I would not lose men or even die myself, but being here without them is difficult at times. Others that were taken along the way are never forgotten, such as Sgt. James McHale, Sgt. Reyes Ramirez, Spc. Robert Jones, Spc. Carlo Alfonso and Spc. Ja'Mel Bryant. These are Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice and I promise that they will never be forgotten. Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day is their day, and I will tell stories of these brave soldiers for the rest of my life. My grandchildren will know who they are because I was lucky enough to work with these men, and I sincerely hope their grandchildren will know about their sacrifice as well.
Sometimes I miss the days in Iraq, the days in Ramadi and Sadr City. Sounds crazy, right, because of the danger? But if you ask anyone who was there, most say the same. It is not because we miss getting in firefights as much, or getting blown up by IEDs. It's because we miss the brothers we were with. The things we lived through and what we did gave us all a bond that can never be broken. I was a platoon sergeant, then had a platoon with 19 soldiers. Of those 19, 16 are out of the army and trying to make it as civilians. Some are naturally doing better than others; we all have our demons to live with. We all still stay in contact on a regular basis through Facebook and that helps us all in our own way.
The company I have now is extremely large, more than 220 soldiers. When we first met I was just a platoon sergeant with 19 young kids and they were all combat engineers. Now I am a first sergeant with military police, combat engineers, combat support, signal specialist, and a maintenance team under me. They are all top-notch. Everyone gets to go outside the wire, meaning that they all get to be part of a mission off the camp, and they love it. Some even think out loud that they want to get into a firefight with the enemy. I always remind them that when that happens someone -- enemy or friend -- almost always dies.
I am near the end of my military career. I am enrolled in Troops to Teachers, a great program that will help me transition from soldier to teacher. Currently I am only a few hours away from completing my bachelors' degree and want to become a high school teacher. Kids need a positive role model, someone to bring them together and show them what can happen when you work as a team. I am choosing this second career path because it gives me a chance to get involved with the youth, a chance to mold and to motivate. I believe kids are like soldiers; they want someone to guide them and be tough but fair. I want to teach in the Savannah, Ga., area. We fell in love with that city while visiting my son when he returned from Iraq.
I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts with all of you on a day that's so important to us. And thanks for being in touch with me through this column over the years. You don't know how good it makes us all feel to know people back home really care about us.
1. I think if you want to get goose bumps and stand tall, go watch Whitney Houston
2. I think that after 18-plus years in the Army I have seen it all, yet every day soldiers here are doing things that make me proud and never want to leave the service. This really says a lot about the quality of Americans we have. What person in his or her right mind joins the service knowing deployment is likely? I will tell you what kind -- the kind with heart, and lots of it.
3. I think that everyone should enjoy the holiday weekend and grill out with family and friends, and remember the fact that young men and women are deployed for America and its beliefs. If we were home, we would be doing the same thing. Enjoy your family and friends. We miss you all.
4. I think that feeling good about your job and making a difference is what life is about. I believe in enjoying friends and family, not being consumed with making money. Life is about making memories, not making money.
5. I think the former and current NFL players bring morale up like you would not believe when they do USO tours or visit us over here. Meeting these larger-than-life men makes us all relive our childhood days.
6. I think that Peter King has the greatest fan base on earth and it is shown by their kind words and generosity. The "Five for Fighting" campaign is a classic example of that and we all thank you readers for it.
7. I think General Douglas Macarthur said it best: "It is my earnest hope -- indeed the hope of all mankind -- that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world found upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice."
8. I think the NFL should end this labor dispute now and play ball. Camps should be open on time. Let the games be played. You have no idea how much the troops look forward to the NFL.
9. I think America means freedom.
10. I think I have the greatest family in the world; I miss them terribly at times. Soldiers here are not alone so be comforted to know that we are here together. We are one family over here and look after each other. Happy Fourth of July, America. We miss you!