Soldiers' Talk About Overseas Mission, Time Away From Home, Loved Ones
By Michelle Firmbach
The Portsmouth Herald, Herald Sunday, April 21, 2002
NEWINGTON - A portrait of Captain John Ogonowski - co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 and likely the first Sept. 11 victim - is attached to the doorway leading to the runway. Ogonowski is a haunting reminder of why members of the 157th Air Refueling Wing are called to duty.
While the stories of the men and women of the New Hampshire Air National Guard deployed overseas to serve the nation in the war on terrorism have fallen off the front page, some are still out there and others are being called to go.
"We can't forget these folks," said Wing Commander Col. Richard P Martell of Hampton.
Martell, who is responsible for deciding who will go, was deployed himself to an undisclosed location in the European Theater of Operations where he served as the commander of air expeditionary groups.
"I felt like I was doing my piece, too," Martell said. "I know what it's like to leave my family. Someone has to shovel the driveway, pay the bills. ... It gives me a better appreciation and understanding that helps me in this job. I was really impressed with the caliber and dedication of people in armed forces."
Focused on their missions, the men and women of the New Hampshire Air National Guard assembled overseas remain cut off from the stampede of little children on the linoleum floor and the solace found in a warm embrace.
Those daily anecdotes are substituted by the camaraderie of troops working against terrorism.
The anxiety brought on by the drip, drip of a leaky faucet, the brick on the front walkway that needs fixing or an unpaid bill is replaced by fear of a biological, chemical or radiological attack.
"There is a real threat over there -- day to day -- you give them the opportunity and they will probably take it," said Maj. Denis J. Hebert, 46, of Newington, deputy commander for civil engineering.
Hebert and Senior Airman Autumn Ricker, 22, of Dover, a readiness technician and a civil engineering student at the University of New Hampshire, were deployed to the Southwest Asia Theater of Operations to serve with a control unit for coalition forces monitoring the no-fly zone over Iraq in Operation Southern Watch in December. The men stayed in barracks.
"We called it the big beach, but we couldn't find the water," Hebert said. The men and women were bound by the terrorist attacks and the personal stories shared by service members.
"It tied us all together. The threat fixed us," Hebert said. "To me, the most enjoyable part was working with all of the people. No matter how bad it got, everyone really stuck together."
Hebert returned home on March 19.
"For the first two weeks all I wanted to do was sleep - time to think about what's happened," Hebert said. "It's surreal."
Hebert, like others, is working back into his old routine with a different perspective.
"I have more appreciation and respect for everything," Hebert said. "Until you experience it, you don't realize the freedoms we take for granted."
When Martell left home his house was decorated for Christmas, but when he returned three months later, things were much different.
"I just sat there and filled my eyes with images of all the things I was missing," Martell said.
Over the next week, he was greeted by his neighbors, each shaking his hand and thanking him for serving his country. The regulars in the coffee shop downtown noticed his safe return and inquired about his journey. He's been going there for years, each day in uniform, but before Sept. 11, few heads turned at the sight of him.
"That is a new occurrence," he said. "Now, you walk into places and people are more apt to talk to you. This never happened before."
Other guard members found that what they missed was performing the daily chores like taking out the garbage on Tuesdays and walking the dog. "Spring is poking up," Tech Sgt. Michael Samson said. "I have more appreciation for our way of life."
Reservists Samson, 38, of Barnstead, and Staff Sgt. Jim Abare, 44, of Strafford, power production technicians, were deployed from Oct. 27 to March 28 to an unnamed Island in the Southwest Asia Theater of Operations. There, the local reservists were charged with running the power plant mobile generators.
"There was at first no power at all," Samson said. "If the generators were down, it went dark."
Abare and Samson worked the night shift in a desert area absent of color, only shades of brown that changed with the height of the sun.
"When you're part of something for five months it's almost like, can I leave? -- you feel like you should stay and help," said Samson, a corrections corporal for the State of New Hampshire.
They slept during the day in a tent city under the constant hum of the generators and jack hammers. News came only by way of a television set in the recreation area and the Air Force Times.
There was sand seemingly everywhere and when it rained the sand turned to a paste that stuck to their boots. There was no alcohol and the men were confined to their bases, working seven days a week, often upwards of 12 hours a day, even on holidays like Christmas and New Year's.
"I'm just glad I was working," Abare said. "It was just another day really."
But for Ricker, who had lived in New Hampshire all his life, Christmas in the desert heat left something to be desired.
"Something just wasn't quite right," Ricker said. "I just kept busy."
Ricker left college when he was called to action after Sept. 11.
"I joined the guard to serve my country," Ricker said. "so the fact that I had to withdraw from school for an important mission in the desert for three months - though it may not be the most fun- it's something I wanted to do."
The men spoke with their families via telephone a few times a week, but e-mail access was unlimited.
Abare, an electrical Engineer at EAD Motors in Dover, kept in touch with his co-workers, wife and sons over e-mail and Hebert sent pictures to his wife and dog.
The Army and the Air Force recently reported increases of 226 and 1,832 reservists respectively on active duty in support of the partial mobilization, while the Navy reports no change. The net collective result is 2,066 more reservists than last week.
The total number currently on active duty in support of the partial mobilization for the Army National Guard and Army Reserve is 28,615; Naval Reserve, 10,597; Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, 37,813; Marine Corps Reserve, 4,398; and the Coast Guard Reserve 1,836.
This brings the total Reserve and National Guard on active duty to 83,259 from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and individual augmentees.
"I knew it would only be a matter of time before we were deployed," Samson said. "We're all in the military to serve our country."