9-11: Local troops called to serve in war against terrorism
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Waiting for their soldier sons to arrive at Fort Hood after a year’s deployment in Iraq, Terri Krider Hill and Robin Walker didn’t mind the hot, early morning hours in parched Texas.
They had gotten to the base around 12:30 a.m. Aug. 30. Their boys landed at 2 a.m., and the returning troops — about 400 in this group — made it to the parade grounds for a welcome-home ceremony an hour later.
The Army brass trucked the soldiers in from the landing field in big white buses and deliberately parked so that as the troops stepped off they were hidden by the line of vehicles.
It led, of course, to the crowd’s yelling “Move that Bus!” Following the ceremony, the antsy soldiers and family members went wild to the sounding of “Charge!” and the two throngs of people — soldiers and families — dashed toward each other in an emotional sea of humanity.
Amid the yelling, screaming and crying, Hill frantically looked for her son Michael. He found her instead.
“It was the greatest feeling, just to grab and hold him,” Terri Hill says. “Tears were flowing everywhere.”
Walker talks about the emotion, too, of reuniting with her son Grey. She’ll forever see his face and the images of other soldiers, many of whom were holding their infant children for the first time.
“You feel the pride bursting through you,” Robin Walker says. “These men and women are incredible human beings to go and fight for our freedom.”
The same soldiers, Michael Hill and Grey Walker, had played Army together as boys, growing up on the same street in Rowan County.
Since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, more than 6,200 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq and close to 46,000 others have been wounded. Members of the regular military, Reservists and National Guard members have been deployed — some several times — to either Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Few war eras in the country’s history have asked so much from so few for so long.
Here in Salisbury, the signs of war have played out frequently, ending several times with the heartbreak of local soldiers lost in the Middle East fighting.
Local citizens also have become accustomed to farewells and welcome-backs. Members of the Salisbury-based 846th and 991st Transportation Cos. of the U.S. Army Reserve each have served two tours of duty in Iraq.
Aviation support personnel and regiments with the Army National Guard in Salisbury also have served stints in Iraq. Part of the 131st Aviation Regiment based in Salisbury is in Iraq now.
The soldiers coming and going have ranged in age from teenagers to seniors pushing 60. To say that it has disrupted lives grossly understates the obvious.
Michael Hill, 26 years old and just promoted to sergeant in the U.S. Army, has been on Iraqi tours twice, and he could be preparing for deployment to Afghanistan within eight months.
“It’s been a different experience,” his mother says of having a son at war. “When they leave you, it’s like a part of you goes with him. I admire Michael for what he has done. He volunteered. He wanted to do it, and he loves his country and will do whatever to take care of it. But it’s an adjustment for us.”
Grey Walker’s return just days ago to Fort Hood represented the end to his first deployment in the Middle East. As the war against terror continues, it’s likely he also faces additional trips to the Middle East.
The end of summer these past two years has meant long trips to Texas for the Walker family. Last year they saw Grey off on his first Iraqi mission. This year, they welcomed him home.
This summer was better than last.
“There have been a lot of changes,” Robin Walker says, “but the outcome of it is that it has made us a stronger family and more in touch with each other.”
Tim Mauldin, a physician’s assistant and full colonel in the N.C. National Guard, also has been deployed twice to Iraq. He has been back on active duty since February, helping other National Guard units in North Carolina prepare for their pending departures to the Middle East.
Mauldin said he has discovered that some countries appreciate the United States’ help when it comes to their own fights against terrorism.
“When you are able to step in and help them help themselves, it makes you proud of what you’re doing,” Mauldin says. “And when you come back (to the United States) it makes you much more tolerant of what goes on around you.”
Mauldin remembers being part of the National Guard forces in the hours and days after Sept. 11, 2001, when they provided security over the major airports in North Carolina. He can’t forget the overnight change among air travelers “and seeing how the nation had gotten into a position of being fearful of something it had taken for granted.”
“It heightened the awareness that there were terrorists in the world wanting to do harm in the United States,” Mauldin says.
A father of eight, Mauldin served his first tour during the same time as one of his sons, Clint, now a detective with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office. Another regular Army son, Rhett, probably will be deployed to Afghanistan in a few months.
Mo Hopper’s husband, Tim, is part of the Salisbury aviation regiment in Iraq, where he often is shuttling top brass around in his Blackhawk helicopter and, as all the soldiers do, dealing daily with temperatures above 130 degrees.
Even though Hopper is 55, it’s his first deployment to Iraq, and his wife’s first experience of having him away longer than a training mission.
“It’s been tough,” Mo Hopper says. “It’s been harder than I thought it would be. I just look so forward to when I do get a message.”
People back home need to realize, Hopper says, that fighting continues in Iraq and that even though troop levels are going down, it’s still a dangerous place for the U.S. soldiers.
“A month ago, there were 60 bombings in one day,” she says. “People are under the impression the war’s over, and it’s not.”
There’s a good chance Tim Hopper will be deployed again within nine months after this Iraqi tour is finished. Mo Hopper recalls the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago and receiving a call from Tim. They had only been married a year.
“He said, ‘Honey, be prepared — things are going to change’” she says. “I had no idea what he was talking about.”
Both soldiers and family members of soldiers say they pay a lot more attention to world affairs than they once did.
Craig Bartsch, an Army National guard pilot and full-time technician at the local Aviation Support Facility, has served two tours in Iraq.
“A lot of things happening overseas affect us, whether we realize it or not,” he says. Bartsch is convinced the United States, even with troop drawdowns in the works, will have to have a military presence somewhere in the Middle East “for a long time.”
In his 50s, Bartsch says he and his wife didn’t have as many of the difficulties returning to a normal life in the States after his two deployments. But it really takes its toll sometimes on young military families, he says.
Bartsch personally missed both the high school and college graduations of his daughter because he was in Iraq both times.
From his own experiences, Bartsch sees a U.S. military that has changed dramatically, with conventional enemies replaced by terrorists. Fighting strategies, tactics and logistics all have changed for the individual soldier over the past decade.
On the plus side, National Guard members and Reservists have gained an incredible amount of combat experience. “That’s a good thing,” Bartsch says.
But the down side, Bartsch says. is what the prolonged and multiple deployments can mean to soldiers, who often must deal with the pressures on their marriages or helplessly see their jobs back home disappear.
Jim Fero, who retired in 1987 as an Air Force mechanic, has been conducting a war-related ritual at Franklin Baptist Church for more than a year. Every Sunday morning, at the 8:30 and 11 services, he walks to the front of the pews and starts reading the names of soldiers who have died during the past week in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He says their name, age and hometown aloud. The names come from a list published every Sunday in the newspaper. Fero said he just wants the men and women to be remembered.
“It’s the least I could do,” Fero says. “I see tears in the congregation every week. I certainly hope it means something to them, (the soldiers’) laying their lives down for our freedoms. It certainly means something to me.”
Deborah Graham says she reads that same newspaper list to herself every week and prays for the families and thinks about how they must have received the news.
Graham’s son, Parker, enlisted in the Marines about a year ago. His duties so far have taken him to places such as Japan, New York and Washington, D.C., but Deborah also knows a young Parker Graham might eventually find himself fighting terrorism in the Middle East, or wherever it poses a threat.
That’s a given for the military since 9/11.
“This one year’s journey has surely changed his life,” Deborah Parker says, “and it has changed ours, too.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
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