After A Year In Afghanistan, Memories That Stick
All this year Weekend Edition is following the soldiers of the 182nd infantry regiment as these National Guardsmen transition from soldier to civilian in our Home Front series. To mark this Memorial Day weekend, we've asked them to share their most vivid memory of the year they spent at war. Share your comments and stories on our Facebook page.
Memories From The Front Lines
Capt. Michael CurrieBecky Lettenberger/NPR
My most vivid memory of my time in Afghanistan was the 10th anniversary of 9/11. ... We started putting American flags up the flagpole, bringing them back down, properly folding them. Because we knew we were going to end up mailing a lot of flags back to our schools, our towns, our fire departments that would really appreciate something that was flown over Afghanistan on such a special day.
But I think what really stood out the most for me was a ceremony that we thought 20 people [were] going to be at. We wound up having 300 people in the square. We assumed it was only going to be Americans going to this ceremony, and then we were assembling for it, and every country represented at Camp Alamo — the Jordanians, the Romanians, the Australians, the British, the Canadians — they were all showing up. And it really took on this very stoic and important feel, like everybody recognized 9/11.
We had the ceremony to coincide with a moment of silence that was going to be held in the United States, and so I think it was late afternoon, but Kabul in that time of year is still bright sunlight, and everyone's wearing sunglasses. During the moment of silence, if you were looking around, you could see tears. You couldn't see anyone's eyes, but you could see the tears.
One of our lieutenants, Lt. Johnson, [was] not the greatest bagpipe player. I think he knows a couple of Scottish and Irish tunes, but he knows how to play "Amazing Grace." And when he started playing "Amazing Grace" to finish out the ceremony, that was something else.
Watch the ceremony at Camp Alamo:
Spc. Kory DesmondCourtesy of the U.S. Army
My memory is of a cookout. When I was in Afghanistan on this little base — it's right on the Pakistan border, basically, in the eastern part of Afghanistan — me and a couple guys got to cook for a cookout. And after our whole summer there in Afghanistan and not being able to have any cookouts, it was a pretty good time.
We did it right in our little living area. For the grill, they had a big 50-gallon drum half grill that they put together. It got welded, and they used different metals just to make a grill top.
We were able to get some cookies and potato salad from the dining facility. But one of my friends, Greg, he's like a junior chef or something like that. We were able to get some spices and stuff from some civilian engineers, and we invited them to the cookout as well because of it. And with all those spices that we got from them, we added those to the burgers and the chicken and the barbecue sauce, which made it taste somewhat better.
We had the cookout all night. They made this game with two plywood boards with a hole in them on a slant and you throw bean bags into them ... and we made that and had that for outside barbecue games.
The cookout was at least 30, 40 people. We just kept cooking and cooking. It was like when you have a big cookout for your friends back home and you just keep throwing on more burgers and you're stuck there all day. Unfortunately, we didn't have beers.
But it felt like a normal day to us — closest we could get, I suppose.
Pfc. Joshua SteinCourtesy of the U.S. Army
Memory? Just my fondest was being able to come home. That was by far the fondest that I have. I got off the plane and ... I couldn't tell you how many people were swarmed in the airport just to see me: my dad, my stepmom, my grandmother. My grandfather was in the hospital.
Three weeks before we were on our way home, I was talking to my dad on Skype and he's like, "You know, your grandfather's in the hospital. He just had a stroke." ... I was so happy to be coming home, and I just felt my heart just sink. ... And I think my biggest fear was not being home ... for my grandfather's death because ... I know I wanted to be there because I love him very much. My grandfather and I were very close.
He would always say jokes, but they were always the same jokes. Just the same old jokes that Grandpa will always say. His favorite one was: Who is Jose's cousin? His cousin's name is "Jos-B." Same joke, but ... it put a smile on my face.
Unfortunately, he just recently passed away ... he just went into severe cardiac arrest, and his heart just stopped. And by the time they got him over to the emergency room, they said there was nothing they could do.
But he got to see me in my uniform and everything, and I wore my dress blues to the hospital so he could see it.
On his funeral, they wanted me to make a speech ... I almost broke down in the middle of it, but I knew if I would have broke down, then the whole family would have just started crying. It took every ounce of my willpower just to swallow it down and just continue it up. You know, I think that made my family feel a lot better knowing that I was staying strong.
Spc. Michael CellaCourtesy of the U.S. Army
There was one time that we had gone out — and this one really does stick with me more than anything else. We happened to be out on mission, and I was in the gun [turret] that day. We happened to be going through a small town. And, as always, most of the people come out, and they were following behind the truck.
My security element that was around the vehicle happened to be kind of pushed off the front, so I was stuck in the back alone. And there was a couple of calls out on the radio that there was a suspicious person.
Now prior to going out on the mission, the enemy's tactics and procedures in this area were to throw grenades inside of the turrets where the gunners were — try to blow up the vehicle from the inside.
And the suspicious person was called out. I ended up tracking him. He's walking toward the rear of the truck. So now, I'm on the radio, "Hey, hey. I got eyes on. I got eyes on. He's got something in his hand. He's got something in his hand."
So I withdrew my 9 mm from my leg holster, I brought it up into the turret. I took aim in that direction. He started walking up again. He raised his hand. He bit down, and it's kind of like a movie scene that you would see — he bit down, pulled the pin on the grenade type of thing. Soon as I saw that, you know, I took my weapon off safe, took aim.
And he kind of threw his hand back, like if you were to take a swig of beer or soda pop or whatever. And he looks up at me and he says, "You want some peanuts?"
It was an experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. But my heart was pounding for about 45 minutes, and that took me about two packs of cigarettes at the end of the day just to calm down from that whole thing.
As you go through these experiences, you kind of start to see things in different light. You might not want to question every little thing that they're doing because it might not always be suspicious.
Especially being up here in Massachusetts and Boston being out on the road. We have ... drivers that are strong-minded and they whip in and out of cars, and you know, you get that adrenaline rush. And my heart starts pounding, and you just got to tell yourself to calm down a little bit, and, you know, everything's not always the biggest issue. If you've ever been up here in Massachusetts, you know what I'm talking about.
Staff Sgt. James BradoskyBecky Lettenberger/NPR
It was tough to think about things that could stick with me forever from this last deployment, but so far my best memory was coming home. That was probably the most poignant moment of the deployment for me.
Right before we were about to be deployed, my wife, she had given birth to our baby Hayden, our son. And she ended up losing that baby shortly thereafter — within a couple days. I was home for leave when that happened, and we were able to be together for a while, while we went through that grieving process, but I was only home for about two to three weeks. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do was to leave at that point.
We have two children, and you know it was always at the back of my mind when I was over there, that she was going through this pretty traumatic event pretty much on her own.
During deployment, you're on two sides of a fence. I'm on one side, trying to let her know what's going on — sort of — overseas. Nothing specific because you don't want to concern your spouse. And I think she kind of did the same thing. She said everything was OK. I could tell in her voice when I would talk to her in the beginning of the year it was hard for her.
It wasn't until the end of the deployment ... it started creeping back into my consciousness. I mean, I thought about it a lot, but I tried not to let it affect me in my daily life. So when I finally did come home, it was pretty emotional because I knew I had to ... confront everything that I probably just shut off, but more importantly I was able to be home.
We flew into Logan [Airport] and they had a memorial hall in Melrose, [Mass.]. I remember we marched in off the buses, and they had us file in and fall right into formation. And once I spotted my family, I couldn't stop waving at 'em. You're like a horse in the stable, just waiting to run. There's no feeling quite like it — knowing that it's finally over.
The weight was off the shoulders once we broke formation and I hugged my wife. So it was really awesome. And to see my kids again — my son's 6, my daughter's 3. So my son was old enough to understand where I was and what I was doing, so he wants to make sure that I'm not going away ever again. I told him I can't promise it, but there's a good chance that I'll never have to do that same thing again.
He said, "You're going to be home forever now." And I said, "Yeah. I'm home forever."