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‘Excited but worried’: First-time deployers try to imagine life downrange

U.S. Army Pfc. Addison Spence with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment participates in a unit ruck march Aug. 2, 2013. Spence will soon deploy to Afghanistan for his first time.

VILSECK, Germany — Addison Spence juggled three jobs before he joined the Army a year ago, working shifts as a drugstore manager and line cook during the week and a construction laborer on the weekends.

Now an infantryman bound for a nine-month tour in southern Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province, the 23-year-old from Ventura, Calif., has a narrower focus — along with a few anxieties. 

“I’ll be excited, but worried at the same time,” Spence said in an interview before his unit deployed this week. “I mean, I’m not afraid to die, but at the same time, I am.”

At a time when the war has receded into the background for many Americans, it remains an everyday reality for servicemembers still making long deployments to Afghanistan.

Among them are soldiers such as Spence, who is making his first tour.

Aware they would likely end up in Afghanistan when they enlisted, many still signed up in search of jobs, education benefits and a chance to better themselves for families and children back home. Some now hope to make a career out of the service, while others expect to move on after deployment. 

In recent interviews, soldiers from Troop L, 3rd Squadron — one of three line companies in the brigade-size 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is deploying from the small Bavarian town of Vilseck — all said they were excited and anxious about the upcoming tour. They also wondered how they will perform under the pressure.

“I just don’t want to mess up,” said Pfc. Ricardo Ramirez, 21, of Puerto Rico. “It’s my first deployment. I just want to help as much as I can.”

By many indicators, the danger facing U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan continues to ebb from a high mark several years ago. At least 90 Americans have been killed due to hostile action so far in 2013, compared with 310 in all of 2012 and 499 in 2010, according to iCasualties.org, which compiles casualty numbers from the war.

Fewer American troops are exposed to the enemy as Afghans now handle daily combat operations, a switch that occurred earlier this year. Meanwhile, Americans continue to move away from the smaller, remote outposts they occupied for years and into the larger forward operating bases as they prepare for the scheduled 2014 end to coalition combat operations.

But dangers persist. Roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices continue to target American convoys traveling between bases. American military advisers work closely with local counterparts, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by rogue Afghan troops. 

Third Squadron will base itself in Maiwand and Zhari districts, which remain unsettled areas of Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban movement. The day-to-day operations of Troop L, which was initially pegged as a quick-response force for the 2nd Cavalry area, remain unclear.

Ramirez, a machine-gunner, isn’t sure whether his unit will see action once on the ground.

“There’s been both signs,” he said. “It could be quiet, a down deployment, or it could be really bad. But from the news, all I’ve read about the place, it’s going to be a little bit hard.”

A fourth-grader on Sept. 11, 2001, Ramirez was the first in his family to join the military when he enlisted more than a year and a half ago. The education benefits, and the possibility of putting his wife and himself through school, guided his decision, he said. The service has since grown on him, and he’s now considering making it a career. His family is worried about him, he said.

Ramirez said he’s avoided talking to his sergeants and noncommissioned officers about their experiences in Afghanistan.

“I want to get my own experience, he said. “I don’t want to get nervous when my time comes to do something for my platoon.”

Some first-timers say they still want a taste of combat: Most said they’d be disappointed if they left Afghanistan without a Combat Infantryman Badge, which is earned only after enemy engagement.

 “That’s a big deal,” said Cpl. Ethan Strouse, who comes from Chicago. “If you go down there, and you go to Afghanistan, and you do all that stuff and what comes along with it, you want that. It’s like, ‘I did my job. I went here, I earned this.’ ”

Combat, he said, is a double-edged sword: “You don’t want it, but you want it.”

As a rifle team leader deploying for the first time since joining the Army two years ago, Strouse, 21, is tasked with keeping his guys on point even as he experiences war for the first time. Roadside bombs are a concern, he said. He also worries how he’ll fight complacency if violence is rare. 

Pfc. Mike Forgach, a 21-year-old mortarman from Hernando Beach, Fla., said he’s looked on the Internet and talked with his sergeants to learn as much as possible about Kandahar and the deployment.

“The guys in my company all have a theory that they [insurgents] know we’re kind of like the last guys to go,” he said. “That’s what we’re all hearing, is we’re the last infantry unit to go and no one will replace us, so they might try to go out with a bang and try to give us more action than we expected — or the units that have been there previously expected.”

Forgach enlisted last year after learning he was to become a father, setting aside his goal of joining law enforcement in his home county. Even though the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, Forgach is still considering re-enlisting. 

He expects the largest threats downrange to come from roadside bombs and the threat of “insider attacks” by locals versus regular combat with an enemy force.

“I’m excited, anxious. Not really scared much,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I’m not scared.”

In interviews, squadron commanders and NCOs with prior deployments like to say they’d prefer a quiet tour this time, one where gym time and chow remain the most exciting parts of the day and where U.S. soldiers are largely unneeded by the Afghans.

Spence, from California, is torn whether he wants an eventful deployment. Asked if a quiet tour would be a disappointment, he said he wasn’t sure.

“Yes, because if I didn’t get my CIB I’d be a little bummed,” he said. “And no because it’d be nice to come back with everyone we left with in this entire troop. I don’t want to see a single guy — a single guy — go down. That’d hurt me.”

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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