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Ray Duckler: A whole new world awaits those who serve

Bill Fish, from Gilmanton, is a MEDEVAC pilot in the National Guard based in Concord. After leaving for Fort Hood in September 2012 for two months, he and the unit of pilots, medics, and maintenance personnel spent eight months flying missions in Afghanistan.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Bill Fish, from Gilmanton, is a MEDEVAC pilot in the National Guard based in Concord. After leaving for Fort Hood in September 2012 for two months, he and the unit of pilots, medics, and maintenance personnel spent eight months flying missions in Afghanistan. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Bill Fish came home from work one day and discovered his youngest son no longer knew him or, for several weeks, needed him.

But when Anthony Foote’s most recent work shift ended, his reconnection with his children had fewer rough spots.

Welcome to the world of the veteran, of feeling your way around in a different kind of darkness than the one experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Fish and Foote might sound like a country music duo, but their actions in Afghanistan recently were sweet music for the men and women who needed them.

They’re MEDEVAC pilots in the National Guard, Fish from Gilmanton, Foote from Bow, and they ate sand thousands of miles from home so the injured could receive the necessary medical attention to stay alive.

“I personally was ready for some time off,” said Foote, 45, a 1987 Concord High School graduate. “A vacation we went on washes away a whole year of being gone from your family.”

They left for Fort Hood in September 2012, deployed to Afghanistan two months later, then spent eight months doing what they were trained to do.

They were welcomed home recently during a ceremony at Guard headquarters, with the state’s Congressional delegation making speeches, and a little girl named Kyra Whitehead, of Milford, singing “God Bless America.”

There were 19 in their unit: medics, pilots, maintenance people. They worked with Guard units from three other states and were known as Jigsaw once the pieces fit together.

Foote is proud of New Hampshire’s MEDEVAC history and in fact was a member of an ROTC rescue team in the late 1980s.

He learned how to sleep in caves during winter and climb ice using ropes. Then he took his pilot training and went to Iraq, in 2005, when Americans were dying at an alarming rate.

For one year, while in hot spots like Tikrit and Mosul, Foote was away from home, and when he returned, he got a taste of what military personnel face on a regular basis.

“I was dating my wife at the time,” Foote said. “And when I got back, you grow up and life changes after an experience like that, when you see how fragile things are.”

That fact hit home, hard. Six months before he left for Iraq, Foote’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died while he served, at age 33. His grandmother also died while he was away.

“Things were so busy I didn’t get to spend as much time with my sister before I left,” Foote said.

This last time, Foote’s unit supported the Marines, and when he got home, his daughter, 3 months old when he left, was 15 months. His other daughter Abby, now 6, couldn’t read or write when he left in 2012. Now she can.

But unlike what’s happened to Fish, this part of Foote’s life has been rewarding. He took the family on a cross-country trip this fall, shortly after returning home.

He’s watched Abby write stories and cards, and he’s seen Molly explore.

“She started saying, ‘Dah-Dah,’ ” Foote said. “Since I’ve been spending time with her at home, I love it. I’m watching her venture and learn and see how curious she is. She gets into everything, opening the cabinets, opening the drawers and taking out the Tupperware, grabbing my hand to drag me around the house.”

Fish’s story has common threads with Foote’s. The 35-year-old Merrimack Valley High School graduate has deployed twice, to Iraq, then Afghanistan.

First, in 2004, came a stint with the military police, escorting troops, working security at a prison, patrolling the base’s perimeter.

Fish came home and learned how to fly, then teamed with Foote on this latest mission to Afghanistan.

Night flights, Fish said, were black as coal, with no cars or cities or any lighting to aid the pilots during landing. They had night-vision goggles and training as their only allies.

Day missions included sand. Lots of it.

“When you get to treetop level, you start picking up a huge dust cloud; we called it moon dust,” Fish said. “As pilots are touching down there are no reference points. That’s usually what got people hurt or killed.”

When he got home, Fish had new challenges. His son Major, now 6, was old enough to remember his dad when he left, mindful of the fact that he missed him and wanted him home.

But Coen, 2½, was a different story. Fish had been warned during debriefing about emotional distances forming from distances in geography.

“They told us not to expect to come back and fall into where we were,” Fish said. “They told us people and kids are going to be different, that things have changed. I was like, ‘Yeah, right, that’s not going to happen.’ ”

But it did.

Coen wondered about the new person in his home, in his life. He wanted mom to pick him up, not dad. He wanted mom to get him a snack, not dad.

“He was constantly wanting his mother and not me, and it was really frustrating,” Fish said. “I never thought I was going to be the one to have such a hard time emotionally reconnecting with my kids, and sure enough I’m the one being affected by it.”

The bond is tighter these days. As Fish says, “It’s only now where he wants to play with me and wants me to do things for him. He’s starting to come around.”

Other unfamiliar life experiences haven’t been so bad for Fish. Like the time, just the other day, when he and his wife, Tyler, went grocery shopping.

Fish still had his Guard uniform on after a day of drills. A young couple in the checkout line offered to pay his grocery bill, about $200.

“I realized he wasn’t going to back down,” Fish said. “He just said I want to thank you for your service. Like, two days later I was still thinking about it and analyzing why that guy was so nice.”

Pretty obvious, don’t you think?

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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