New Hampshire Guard members prepare for another deployment in Afghanistan
Warrant Officer Luke Koladish, 31, center, with his wife Jaime and his daughter Rose, 1, at their home in Pittsfield. He is deploying as a pilot with Charlie Company 3-238th General Support Aviation Battalion in April. This is his third deployment.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
Captain Sam Weber, 30, with his niece Bristol, 2, and nephew Kael, 4, at their home in Gilmanton. Capt. Weber is leading 110 soldiers in the 237th Military Police Company when they deploy in February. It will be his second deployment.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
Specialist Sara Furmanick, 23, at the New Hampshire National Guard base in Concord. Spc. Furmanick is deploying as a medic with the 237th Military Police Company in February. It will be her first deployment.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
Master Sergeant Kory McCauley, 44, with his wife Gail and their son Parker Scherrer, 13, at their home in Concord. Master Sgt. McCauley is deploying with the 237th Military Police Company in February. This will be his second deployment.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
Staff Sergeant Shea Ahern, 26, at his apartment in Deerfield. Staff Sgt. Ahern is deploying as a medic with the Charlie Company 3-238th General Support Aviation Battalion in April. It will be his second deployment.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)
Even as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 2014, 160 members of the New Hampshire National Guard are preparing to deploy there in the spring. Many of these soldiers have already had multiple assignments to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. For others, it will be their first time. Monitor reporter Molly A.K. Connors interviewed several members of the Guard in the fall and early winter about how they were preparing for their upcoming deployment. (Connors has since left the Monitor to work as a policy adviser to Gov. Maggie Hassan). They talked about their lives, their families, their aspirations outside of military life and their abiding sense of duty – to their country and to their fellow soldiers.
When Luke Koladish arrived at Manchester’s airport in the fall of 2010 after a few weeks of training, his girlfriend was nervous when she picked him up.
“She was almost shaking out of her boots,” Koladish remembered.
By the time the couple was standing under a light in the parking lot, Jaime couldn’t take it any more. She handed him an envelope. It contained an image from an ultrasound.
They had been debating whether they should marry before or after they went together to Alabama for 18 months of training. “I guess we’re definitely getting married before we go to Fort Rucker,” Koladish told her.
This spring, Koladish, 31, will leave for his third deployment in seven years with the Guard. It will be his first to Afghanistan. It will be his first as a helicopter co-pilot. It will be his first as a husband. And it will be his first as a father.
He was 20 when he joined the Guard in August 2001. He was picking up his very first government-issued Army equipment – boots, helmet, bag – when the planes hit the World Trade Center.
“Picked a hell of a time to go in the infantry,” a sergeant told him. “We’re going to war.”
It would be more than two years before Koladish deployed.
He’d grown up in Windham and been on an officer’s career track but left the ROTC program so he could deploy to Iraq as an enlisted soldier with his friends – some of them his roommates at UNH.
He’d had only one semester to go before graduation. He wouldn’t finish for another three years.
During that deployment, which spanned 2004 and 2005, his prime responsibilities included traveling in armored vehicles to protect dozens of tractor-trailers, helping to train Iraqis and providing security to various officials. His platoon was also part of the intensified assault on Fallujah.
During convoys, more times than he can remember, Koladish and others had to drive under one particular bridge north of Baghdad – 40 Alpha. “We knew we were going to get hit with an IED every time we went,” he said. “We knew it was a bad spot.”
But they had to go under it. Dozens and dozens of times.
“We used to just pull the gunner down inside the vehicle and try to go through as soon as possible,” he said.
Although several people from his unit were injured, primarily from IED shrapnel, no one died during that deployment.
About four years later, when Koladish returned to Iraq for a second year-long deployment, he revisited 40 Alpha. It was no longer missing chunks of concrete from explosions or surrounded by burnt-out garbage. It had been painted with flowers and seemed more like a mural for kids than a trap for American soldiers.
Koladish has always loved reading and writing; he said he wanted to be a journalist until he learned the average starting salary at a New Hampshire newspaper. So instead, he worked for the Guard full time, writing stories and working on a history project about veterans.
When he deployed to Iraq in 2009, he helped put out a newspaper and taught Iraqi soldiers the basics of journalism. He rarely had to wear his body armor on that deployment.
When he again safely returned to New Hampshire in March 2010, he noticed a pretty girl working behind the counter at a Manchester coffee shop. Over lunch not long after, she gave him a “speech,” he said, about how she didn’t want a boyfriend.
“I think it was two, three months later she moved in with me,” Koladish said.
Others things were going well, too.
His whole life, Koladish wanted to fly, but his vision wasn’t good enough. But then a long-standing Army rule prohibiting people who had had corrective eye surgery from becoming pilots had changed. With the new rules, he had Lasik surgery and was told he would fly Black Hawk helicopters for the Guard.
When he met Jaime, he knew he’d be leaving for Fort Rucker within a year to learn how to fly.
And after a wedding at Manchester City Hall, the couple moved to Alabama. He learned to fly a helicopter. Jaime gave birth to their daughter, Rose. They returned to New Hampshire and bought a house in Pittsfield. They want more children.
And now, Koladish is getting ready to leave again.
“I think saying goodbye to my daughter’s going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said. She’s just old enough now, he said, that she knows when he’s not there.
“When she hears the helicopter now, she says, ‘Daddy? Daddy?’ ”
Koladish said he’d like to stay in the military at least until he’s 50 – he loves the Guard and he loves flying. The time away is difficult, but when he puts it in perspective, it’s not so bad.
“We’ll have all that other time together,” he said.
When Shea Ahern was a senior at Raymond High School, he went out for the track team. His event: the two-mile. He had to get in shape – he had joined the New Hampshire National Guard and would be leaving for basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky about a week after graduating with the Class of 2005.
Ahern’s father, grandfather and two uncles had served in the Army Guard or Reserve. Motivated by a love for his country and in part by tuition support he’d receive, Ahern decided to follow in their footsteps.
“I have a rich family history in the Guard, and I also wanted help with education benefits,” Ahern said. “So the two of those together, I decided to join the Guard.”
Near the end of that summer, around the time his former classmates were checking into their dorms, Ahern, now 26 and living in Deerfield, headed for Fort Sam Houston in Texas for four months of training as a medic.
In the fall of 2006, he enrolled at UNH. He started with nursing. Then recreational therapy. But after three years, before he could finish, he had to leave UNH. It was August 2009, and it was time to go to Iraq.
As a medic, his job was largely giving first aid to injured soldiers and civilians, transporting them and ensuring equipment was ready for flight.
The crew worked in 24-hour shifts. Their days were a bit like a firefighter’s – responding to emergencies when called, but traveling in Black Hawk helicopters instead of ambulances.
That year – 2009 to 2010 – was a relatively quiet time in Iraq, but two particular missions stood out, Ahern said.
About midway through the deployment, an armored vehicle rolled over in an accident. Two soldiers were injured, and two were killed.
“I remember lifting up (in the copter) and getting right outside the (forward operating base),” he said. Within minutes, they arrived at the accident scene. He helped with the injured.
“They seemed in pain, but they weren’t screaming like in the movies,” he said. They loaded the soldiers and transported them to where they could get more medical treatment.
On another flight, he rescued a German shepherd – he thinks it was a bomb-sniffing dog – that had been cut badly while playing with its handler. “The dog outranked me,” he said.
“The dogs had a lot of jobs over there. There were a lot of dogs there for morale and welfare.”
There were long stretches of down time during the deployment – the troops watched a lot of movies and television series, including all of HBO’s The Wire and all of the Godfather films. Ahern wishes he had spent his free time more productively.
The deployment interrupted his studies at UNH. In between work and Guard duties, he has taken classes part time at other state colleges since his return.
“I didn’t plan on being in school for eight years and not really having a degree out of it,” he said. “I’m close, but I don’t have it yet.”
The deployment did, however, give him greater focus. He knows he wants to be a paramedic.
“The way I look at it, everybody has a bad day at some point in their lives,” he said. “It’s always kind of nice to be able to be the one that can help somebody out.”
He has a gentle demeanor, but Ahern likes a the excitement of emergency response. “I find myself kind of being an adrenaline junkie.”
After he returned in 2010, Ahern enrolled in an intensive program to become a paramedic. He hopes to be certified before he deploys to Afghanistan as a medic this spring.
He’s torn about the deployment, where he’ll be in charge of about 10 other soldiers and responsible for more of the mission’s logistics. “I basically want to do it and do the mission, but at the same time I want to be here with my family and friends, too.”
Ahern’s going to be an uncle soon – one of his sisters is pregnant and the other is in the midst of adopting a baby.
And now Ahern has a girlfriend. He didn’t three years ago.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “I hope that it doesn’t make her run.”
Does he ever feel like the deployment is a disruption – from schooling, from the girlfriend?
“I’d be lying if I told you no.”
But he’s not the complaining type.
“I always look at things with the glass half full,” he said.
Running a prison isn’t sexy, but from 2006 to 2007, Sam Weber was one of the New Hampshire Guardsmen who had to do it.
“I don’t think there’s many soldiers who say, ‘Hey, I want to go do detainee ops,’ ” Weber, 30, said.
He and his fellow soldiers dealt with riots, arson, assaults and the bizarre pecking order among Iraqi prisoners at Camp Cropper, a prison of more than 3,000 in Baghdad.
But most of the time, it was mind-numbingly dull. “You work really long hours, and it’s boring,” Weber, of Dover, said. “But you have to be alert because they’d try to escape every once in a while.”
Weber spent a year deployed in Iraq as an MP responsible for police-type activities. But growing up, he wanted to be in the infantry, the all-male division of the Army devoted to more in-the-field type exercises.
“It’s kind of like being on a sports team,” he said. “That’s what it feels like, it feels like you’re playing high school sports all over again.”
Later this spring, Weber will deploy for a second time as an MP, this time to Afghanistan. His mission is likely to include helping train Afghan nationals in police and anti-terrorism tactics.
Weber’s parents didn’t serve in the military, but both his grandfathers did – one in the Korean War and the other in Europe in World War II. They didn’t talk a lot about it during his childhood in Colebrook, but Weber grew up knowing he’d join the Army.
He attended the University of New Hampshire on an ROTC scholarship, graduated in 2005 and was commissioned an officer in the Guard.
About a year later, after stints as a Guard recruiter and a temporary employee at the post office in Concord, he left for Iraq. He had been living with his brother and sister-in-law and had no dependents, so he didn’t have too much to pack.
“Everything I owned fit in a duffel bag and one tote,” he said. “I just left it at my mom’s house.”
When you’re deployed, Weber said, you sometimes get so busy that you don’t have time to feel lonesome. He said he has it easier than some others because he doesn’t have a wife and kids to worry about. But it can be hard when you realize your friends back home are having barbecues, going to the movies and throwing parties without you.
“It’s definitely humbling when you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, they’re fine with me gone. They’ll survive. The world hasn’t ended because I’m not around,’ ” Weber said.
It’s also hard to have no privacy or alone time during a deployment. Even the prisoners knew his name.
“They have nothing but time,” he said. “These guys knew all the guards’ first and last names. They knew the battalion commanders’ names.”
And they didn’t hesitate to raise hell now and then. Mixing the silt-like sand in the prison with chai, they’d make rocks to chuck at guards. Urine-filled bottles? They’d toss those. Steal matches to burn the building down? They tried that, too. And then there were the full-on assaults.
Soldiers had to adapt to keep things under control, Weber said.
“They wanted to see if they could sneak somebody out in the garbage, and so they found a little guy, killed him and put him out in the garbage,” Weber said. “The garbage collectors found him when his arm kind of fell out of the bag.”
The prison staff started using clear plastic garbage bags and checking the garbage more thoroughly, Weber said.
On top of that, he was also responsible for the welfare of 40 other soldiers whose problems seemed outside his own frame of reference.
“I’ve got married guys asking me for advice on their relationship,” he said. “I’ve never been married, so there you’ve got to be prepared to deal with stuff or offer advice on stuff maybe you haven’t experienced.”
When he finally returned in 2007, he just relaxed at first.
Eventually, he took a full-time but temporary position with the Guard to fill in for an employee who had deployed. He has had a few similar positions since.
“I’ve managed to make a career out of not having a permanent job with the National Guard,” he said.
Even if he eventually gets “a big-boy job someday,” he’d like to stay in the Guard.
When he deploys to Afghanistan in the spring, he’ll be a company commander in charge of 110 soldiers.
His soldiers will help train Afghan police, which will require a lot more patrols outside a base. Things are different on the home front this time, too. Now he has an apartment to vacate, furniture to store. A niece and nephew he dotes on. And a girlfriend. He says they haven’t decided what to do when he’s gone.
Weber said this deployment is a good opportunity for him and that he didn’t really hesitate about it.
“New Hampshire soldiers are deploying, so how could you really say no?” he said. “What is more important than doing that?”
Sara Furmanick, 23, is shedding.
Knickknacks. Furniture. Her boyfriend.
In a few months, she’ll leave for Afghanistan for her first deployment with the Guard. She’s going as a medic, and she’s got to get ready.
“It’s a long process of just trying to get rid of as much as I can before I leave so there’s less to store,” she said.
A lot of the items remind her of stages she’s already been through in her life.
There was a stage when she collected a lot of black candle holders. Those have got to go, she said. But the firefighter-themed one her mom got her – decorated with boots, bunker gear and a helmet – that’s a keeper.
Furmanick, who grew up in Holderness, will also keep select items from school; she graduated from Plymouth Regional High School in 2007.
Her grandfather served in the Navy in World War II, and she’d always wanted to be in the military, too.
She made it happen halfway through her senior year.
“I saw a recruiter at my high school, and I chased her down,” she said.
Then 17 and the second-youngest of six children, Furmanick went home that day and told her parents she needed their signatures to join the Army. “They weren’t happy at first, with the war going on. But they’re my family, and they support me,” she said. “They always support everything I do.”
So shortly after graduation, she was off to basic training in Fort Jackson in North Carolina, and then Fort Sam Houston in Texas for training as a medic.
Around that time, she started to drift away from her high school friends.
“I didn’t have a cell phone at basic to be able to call (friends) and meet up with them, and so a lot of those friendships are not there now.”
Since she enlisted, a brother has joined the Navy, and a sister has joined the Army.
When all her initial training was done, Furmanick returned to New Hampshire, worked as a recruiter for the Guard and started taking classes, first in criminal justice and now nursing. She’d like to continue to pursue nursing when she returns from Afghanistan.
“I really like pediatrics,” she said.
But right now, she’s preparing to go to Afghanistan, where she’ll likely go on patrols and provide first aid.
About a month ago, she broke it off with her boyfriend. It’s easier for her this way, she said.
“That’s the last thing I need to be worried about,” she said. “He understood. If (the relationship) had been more long term, it would have been different.”
This is her first deployment, after all.
“I need to be focused on that.”
His whole life, Kory McCauley wanted to serve in the military. He came pretty close to joining the Marine Corps when he was a high school senior.
Then he met a girl.
“Stupid 18-year-old,” McCauley said. “I fell in love, and I couldn’t leave her, all this, so I didn’t go. And then I didn’t end up with her.”
A decade later in 1997 – after getting married, becoming a father and working as a manager at UPS – he finally joined the Army.
“It took me another 10 years,” he said, “so I actually went in at 28.”
And after all that, he kind of hated it, largely because fraternization rules prevented him from socializing with soldiers of a different rank, even if they were his age.
“I just had to hang out with privates,” he said. “They’re 18, and I’m 28 and have nothing in common with them.”
He served from 1997 to 2000, and in that time, he did several months-long deployments to countries including Honduras, Panama and Belize.
But eventually he rejoined the military, and this spring, he’ll deploy to Afghanistan. It will be his second deployment – the first was to Iraq – in six years.
Now 44, McCauley grew up in North Reading, Mass., and settled in New Hampshire about 12 years ago, after he left the Army.
He got steady work at the men’s prison in Concord and enlisted in the New Hampshire National Guard in 2005, after hearing about the $15,000 bonuses. It turned out it wasn’t so bad this time.
“I really came in for money, but when I came back in, I realized that I loved it,” said McCauley, who lives in Concord. “I missed it. I didn’t even realize I missed it.”
McCauley said he had been the only one in the Guard at the time who’d been an MP on active duty. All his years of experience came in handy, and he was quickly promoted.
“I found that I actually knew a lot more than everybody else,” he said.
From 2007 to 2008, he deployed to Iraq, where most of his responsibilities involved training Iraqis at a police station. “You didn’t know which ones were working for the insurgency,” he said. “So I’d half train them because I didn’t want them to go to use something against me.”
McCauley, who’d been a police officer before working at the prison, said he also grew frustrated by the Iraqis’ approach to police work.
“They don’t go on patrols and do presence patrols like we do in the U.S.,” he said. “They’ll go get in their police car and go sit on the side of the road all day. They’re reactive.”
He likened a lot of the challenges there to mind games. Every morning he’d review the intelligence briefings and learn that some of the Iraqis he was working with were likely involved with the insurgency, including one of the police chiefs he saw every day. But he couldn’t let on that he knew.
“It messes with you,” he said.
When he thinks back on the times the chief told him not to travel a certain route, McCauley knew that keeping a poker face and smiling at the chief probably kept him alive. “I know he saved my ass a few times,” he said.
When he returned from deployment in 2008, McCauley got his job back at the prison, but it required a little adjustment: He had been able to wear a lot more equipment when he dealt with detained Iraqis. “You feel a little naked for a minute,” he said.
This August, he married for a second time – he and his first wife divorced years ago. He said his wife hates the fact that he’s leaving for a deployment so soon. He tries to ignore her dissatisfaction, though he knows it’ll be hard on his two children and new stepson when he’s deployed.
He’s working full time for the Guard to help with the preparation, and he’s starting to focus on the mission.
When you leave, he said, it’s like flipping a switch. You simply have to put anything that would distract you out of your mind.
“I’ve got all these people’s lives under me, I’m not going to be thinking about anything at home,” he said. “I don’t want to hear about issues that are going on – this broke, that broke.”
His role will be different this time around. He’ll likely be in a command center, monitoring and providing support for missions.
And just as he’s preparing those he’s leaving behind, he’s preparing those he’ll be taking over.
He tells them to be always respectful of the local people, even when it’s counterintuitive.
“If you talk down to them and demean them, sometimes getting back at you in their culture is killing you,” he said he tells soldiers deploying for the first time. “If I piss this guy off, he might not be a bomb maker but he knows who is. So you??ve got to understand that and put on a game face when you get over there and be friendly to them.”
It’s a head game, he said. Keep it together.
“Go over there and make the best of it.”