FORWARD OPERATING BASE LIGHTNING, Afghanistan — Fifty miles from the Pakistan border, surrounded by the Hindu Kush, a Fort Bragg soldier is embracing roles that combine two passions.
Sgt. Thomas Tardo splits time between firefighter and paratrooper when stationed at Fort Bragg. In Afghanistan, he's wearing the two hats simultaneously.
A soldier with 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Tardo volunteers with the Stoney Point Fire Department when not deployed.
While deployed, he's an infantry squad leader and the fire chief for Forward Operating Base Lightning near Gardez.
It's a role Tardo didn't expect, but readily accepted.
When he arrived, Forward Operating Base Lightning had firefighting tools but no firefighting force.
The small base is surrounded by an Afghan National Army compound known as Forward Operating Base Thunder and flanked by crumbling ruins of observation posts built by Alexander the Great, but its firefighting equipment was not maintained.
Part of a small force of 82nd Airborne soldiers, Tardo approached officials with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division who run the base. Shortly thereafter, he had added duties outside his roles with the 82nd.
As the base's fire chief, Tardo has built up a brigade of 12 volunteer firefighters who use two all-terrain vehicles that have been modified with water tanks and hoses to fight fire. He also advises and trains a nearby Afghan fire department, meeting with that force weekly, and inspects fire extinguishers on base.
More than 7,000 miles from home, the Sylva, N.C.-native didn't deploy expecting to serve as a firefighter in addition to soldier.
But by early March, Tardo was serving in both roles when he helped respond to a fire in the base's interpreter village.
A laundry facility caught fire, he said. His fire brigade and Afghan firefighters responded.
"It could have been a lot worse," he said.
Having two roles doesn't bother Tardo. He said the two passions have long been intertwined.
"I always had interest in it and a desire to help others," he said of firefighting. "But I wanted to be an infantry paratrooper, too. It just kind of fell into place."
It was while working for a fire department near Spartanburg, S.C., that Tardo decided to join the Army. And he asked to join the Stoney Point department before he ever arrived on Fort Bragg.
"It's something I always wanted to do," Tardo said of joining the Army. "But I'm a lot happier as a firefighter, too."
Tardo first volunteered as a firefighter in 2005 with the Savannah Fire Department in his hometown.
He later moved to South Carolina, first to work at a Ryan's buffet and later to manage a Cracker Barrel in Spartanburg.
While working in Spartanburg, he began volunteering at Tyger River Fire Department.
Tyger River Fire Chief Jim Redd said Tardo walked into the Fire Department one afternoon and asked to help. The chief quickly learned that Tardo was highly motivated and dedicated.
"He has an unbound initiative, his actions are well planned and organized. He is extremely conscientious and is able to maintain composure under some of the most trying conditions," Redd said. "He always goes above and beyond the call of duty, no matter what the mission he has been assigned."
Tardo worked 60 to 70 hour weeks at his restaurant and spent much of his free time at the station, helping out and running calls, according to his former chief.
When Tardo had the opportunity to attend the South Carolina Rookie Firefighter School, he jumped at it, despite having no guarantee of a full-time job.
"At the time, full-time firefighter jobs were hard to come by," Redd said. "Not to mention, he would be taking a drastic cut in pay. Despite my warning, he was convinced that is what he wanted to do."
After school, Tardo took a part-time job at Tyger River but had no luck finding a full-time opening. During that time, he spoke often with Redd about the chief's time in the military and decided to join the Army in 2011.
"One thing that I shared with him was that the military provided a path for me to eventually follow my dreams," Redd said. "He enlisted and as luck would have it, he was offered several full-time firefighting jobs. However, he would not relinquish his commitment to the military."
Tardo said he saw no reason he couldn't be a soldier and a firefighter. His father was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, he said, and he wanted to be the same.
"I saw Tardo's passion for serving the community. There are many similarities between being a soldier and a firefighter, which include protecting and serving, both of which Tardo is passionate about," Redd said. "He is always eager to learn and teach and loves teaching children fire safety."
Tardo is now a lieutenant with the Stoney Point Fire Department. His chief, Freddy Johnson, called him an outstanding member of the department.
He is one of a large contingent of soldiers and airmen who volunteer with the department, Johnson said.
"These soldiers prior to joining our nation's military service worked or volunteered in their own communities as firefighters and EMTs and now seek to volunteer in order to maintain their skills as well as continuing their public service during their time off from the military," he said. "Sergeant Tardo is involved in community service with our Fire Department and is a stellar patriot who places his country first and foremost and is a good example of a soldier giving up precious personal time in order to give back to our community as a volunteer firefighter."
Johnson said Tardo's commitment sets a high standard for other firefighters. He answers emergency calls and leads training and maintenance efforts and often leaves shifts to go straight to Fort Bragg for morning formations. He also volunteers in the department's public education programs in schools and civic organizations and often volunteers to help train new recruits.
Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Murphy, who supervises Tardo on the nights he volunteers, said Tardo is "the true citizen soldier."
"He's responsible, dependable and committed to the citizens he serves, and totally selfless when it comes to his service and is totally confident, bright and well versed in firefighting," Murphy said.
"He serves as the example at the Stoney Point Fire Department," Johnson said.
When Tardo joined the Army, it was not always clear that he would take on both roles.
Redd said he thought Tardo would have to give up firefighting to serve in the Army.
"But apparently his love for being a firefighter is more than flashing red lights and loud sirens," he said. "It is truly his passion."
He also said Tardo has become a source of pride for the department.
"There are really not enough words to express how truly special Tardo is to Tyger River Fire Department and to me and my wife," he said. "He has become a part of our family."
On breaks, Tardo still visits his friends at Tyger River and often lives at the station when he's not at Fort Bragg, Redd said.
"His gear is still hanging in the locker, exactly where he left it when he deployed to Afghanistan - waiting on him to return to his 'other' family at Tyger River Fire Department," Redd said.