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Home six months from Afghanistan, young soldiers of the 237th Military Police Company remake their lives in New Hampshire

  • Staff Sgt. William Roth and his son J.J. sit for a portrait on the couch at their home in Hudson on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. The flag on their laps is a flag that flew in front of Roth's childhood home. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Staff Sgt. William Roth and his son J.J. sit for a portrait on the couch at their home in Hudson on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. The flag on their laps is a flag that flew in front of Roth's childhood home.
    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sgt. Ken Piehler walks around the house with his nine-month-old son Benjamin at their home in Franklin on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sgt. Ken Piehler walks around the house with his nine-month-old son Benjamin at their home in Franklin on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.
    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sgt. Sara McPherson, 30, of Raymond, returns to work at the National Guard's Concord armory on Thursday, July 3, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sgt. Sara McPherson, 30, of Raymond, returns to work at the National Guard's Concord armory on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sgt. Sara McPherson, 30, of Raymond, stands for a portrait at the National Guard's  Concord armory on Thursday, July 3, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sgt. Sara McPherson, 30, of Raymond, stands for a portrait at the National Guard's Concord armory on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sgt. Sara McPherson (left) and Sgt. Jason Collins laugh while in the weight room at the National Guard's Concord armory during a break on Thursday, July 3, 2014. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sgt. Sara McPherson (left) and Sgt. Jason Collins laugh while in the weight room at the National Guard's Concord armory during a break on Thursday, July 3, 2014.
    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Danelle Piehler (right) and nine-month-old Benjamin watch hang out with Sgt. Ken Piehler in their home in Franklin after work on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Danelle Piehler (right) and nine-month-old Benjamin watch hang out with Sgt. Ken Piehler in their home in Franklin after work on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sgt. Ken Piehler is embraced by his three-year-old daughter Scotlynn while hanging out at home in Franklin on Thursday, June 26, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sgt. Ken Piehler is embraced by his three-year-old daughter Scotlynn while hanging out at home in Franklin on Thursday, June 26, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Staff Sgt. William Roth laughs with his friends at his daily pick-up basketball game in Hudson on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Staff Sgt. William Roth laughs with his friends at his daily pick-up basketball game in Hudson on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • The key rack at Staff Sgt. William Roth's home hints at the routines in their lives. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    The key rack at Staff Sgt. William Roth's home hints at the routines in their lives.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Staff Sgt. William Roth sits and his wife Melissa sit with their sons Tyler, 4, (left) and J.J., 6, (right) and explain the significance of the stars and stripes on the flag that flew in the front yard of Roth's childhood home. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Staff Sgt. William Roth sits and his wife Melissa sit with their sons Tyler, 4, (left) and J.J., 6, (right) and explain the significance of the stars and stripes on the flag that flew in the front yard of Roth's childhood home.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • DTI-friendly coupon button. Please edit to reflect correct monetary amount of coupons.

    DTI-friendly coupon button. Please edit to reflect correct monetary amount of coupons.

  • Seth Cohn, formerly a state representative from Canterbury and a participant in the Free State Proejct, gets his nails painted in Agora Valley at PorcFest, the project's annual liberty-themed camp-out officially called the Porcupine Freedom Festival.

    Seth Cohn, formerly a state representative from Canterbury and a participant in the Free State Proejct, gets his nails painted in Agora Valley at PorcFest, the project's annual liberty-themed camp-out officially called the Porcupine Freedom Festival.

  • Staff Sgt. William Roth and his son J.J. sit for a portrait on the couch at their home in Hudson on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. The flag on their laps is a flag that flew in front of Roth's childhood home. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Sgt. Ken Piehler walks around the house with his nine-month-old son Benjamin at their home in Franklin on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Sgt. Sara McPherson, 30, of Raymond, returns to work at the National Guard's Concord armory on Thursday, July 3, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Sgt. Sara McPherson, 30, of Raymond, stands for a portrait at the National Guard's  Concord armory on Thursday, July 3, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Sgt. Sara McPherson (left) and Sgt. Jason Collins laugh while in the weight room at the National Guard's Concord armory during a break on Thursday, July 3, 2014. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Danelle Piehler (right) and nine-month-old Benjamin watch hang out with Sgt. Ken Piehler in their home in Franklin after work on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Sgt. Ken Piehler is embraced by his three-year-old daughter Scotlynn while hanging out at home in Franklin on Thursday, June 26, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Staff Sgt. William Roth laughs with his friends at his daily pick-up basketball game in Hudson on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • The key rack at Staff Sgt. William Roth's home hints at the routines in their lives. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Staff Sgt. William Roth sits and his wife Melissa sit with their sons Tyler, 4, (left) and J.J., 6, (right) and explain the significance of the stars and stripes on the flag that flew in the front yard of Roth's childhood home. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • DTI-friendly coupon button. Please edit to reflect correct monetary amount of coupons.
  • Seth Cohn, formerly a state representative from Canterbury and a participant in the Free State Proejct, gets his nails painted in Agora Valley at PorcFest, the project's annual liberty-themed camp-out officially called the Porcupine Freedom Festival.

The three American flags were tucked out of sight, folded in a cardboard box, high on a shelf in the closet.

Staff Sgt. William Roth stood on a chair in his Hudson apartment to get them out.

One flag is a pristine triangle, zipped into a clear plastic container and handed to his mother at his grandfather’s funeral.

The second is torn and faded, a symbol of his parents’ pride that flew over their home while he was overseas.

The third is a replacement, really, for a flag that blew up with his vehicle during one of his tours as an Army Ranger.

Roth is 29, and he has deployed to the Middle East five times in the past 11 years. Most recently, he returned in January from nine months in Afghanistan with the 237th Military Police Company of the New Hampshire Army National Guard.

“The cause?” Roth said.

He placed the three flags side-by-side on his kitchen table. They are the reason he goes, the answer to his own question.

“This is probably the easiest way to describe it,” he said.

As American troops fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, war became the nation’s routine. Now as companies like the 237th withdraw, a generation of soldiers who came of age in this conflict must remake themselves in the routines of their return.

Roth is one of them. He was a senior at Alvirne High School at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and he joined the Army shortly after his graduation. Then came three deployments with the Rangers, two with the New Hampshire National Guard.

“I’m the type of person, if you’re in shape, you got the experience, you got the rank, the unit needs you – you go,” Roth said. “It’s just a calling.”

A tan beret

“After my first deployment, when I got back, probably the first time I fell asleep on the couch, my wife tried laying down with me,” Roth said. “It was a rough first deployment. . . . I fell asleep with my eyes open. . . . I guess I just pushed her off (the couch). I don’t remember any of this.”

Roth met his now-wife Melissa while they were both working for Costco in 2002, just before he left for the Army. He was recruited from his class to join the Rangers, and he almost quit during the hellish training. But he got his tan beret, and between 2003 and 2007, he deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I met a lot of good dudes,” he said. “Some of ’em ended up getting shot. Some of ’em are still around.”

He remembers the raids, the rate of his heartbeat high in the mountains, the rush of adrenaline.

“I hate reminiscing,” he said. “Because I miss it so much.”

But he and Melissa wanted a family. They had married officially at city hall in Nashua in 2006, just before he left for his third deployment. They had a wedding after he returned in 2007, and he agreed to not renew his contract with the Rangers.

He returned to his routine morning shifts at Costco. Melissa gave birth to their first son. And then he heard the National Guard was sending a company overseas in 2010.

“It sunk in hard,” Roth said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way. There’s no way a unit here is going to leave without me going with ’em.’ ”

‘You knew what you were doing’

When Sgt. Sara McPherson heard the 237th Military Police Company was deploying in 2013, she had the same reaction.

“I was like, ‘I gotta get out of here,’ ” she said.

So she volunteered to go to Afghanistan.

McPherson had wanted to join the Army when she was 18, but her mom protested. So she worked at a jeweler’s for six years before she finally signed on with the Guard. She was soon offered a full-time office job at the armory in Concord, and she jumped on it.

“Better money; I wear my uniform,” said McPherson, now 30.

Her job overseas with the 237th was administrative, processing paperwork in the company’s office at Kandahar Airfield. Their mission was in law enforcement on the base and customs inspections for equipment heading back to the United States. Her routine was simple: wake up at 4 a.m., gym, shower, eat, work, go to the bunker if a rocket hits, repeat.

“You didn’t even think about it,” she said.

The deployment made the gym – and Sgt. Jason Collins – a consistent part of her life. Collins was barely an acquaintance before Afghanistan, but they became friends during training in Texas. He spent most of his time overseas in a two-man team doing customs away from Kandahar, but when he was on base, they were at the gym together.

“Her and I, we worked out together,” said Collins, also 30. “Because I like to lift weights, and she likes to do cardio, so I made her lift, and she’d make me do cardio.”

But that habit didn’t translate easily from Afghanistan to New Hampshire. He has a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. She lives 45 minutes away in Raymond. They both work full-time at the armory, but sometimes they don’t see each other for more than a few minutes a day.

When they do work out together a couple times a week, their muscles are sore afterward.

“You forget how hard it is here, with all the responsibility,” Collins said.

McPherson wears her uniform with ease, with her hands in her pockets and her hair in a bun. But since coming home, she’s still figuring out her new fit. She swims more. She’s shedding a few friendships from her pre-deployment days. She got a motorcycle license.

At her desk in Concord, McPherson talked about how she keeps forgetting to change her Comcast plan, and how she needs to fix her Jet Ski before the holiday weekend.

Her voice is almost nostalgic when she talks about her day-to-day life on Kandahar base.

“You just knew what you were doing. . . . It’s hard to keep what you have over there,” McPherson said.

‘It’s all I’ve ever known’

When Roth left for his first deployment in 2003, he could only communicate with Melissa in hand-written letters. She’s been there through his cycle of deploy, return, repeat.

“It’s all I’ve ever known,” she said. “It’s harder now, with the kids, but I’m used to it.”

They have two children – 6-year-old J.J. and 4-year-old Tyler. Both have mild cases of autism, and at a young age, they don’t understand where their dad goes when he’s gone. The day after he came home from Afghanistan earlier this year, he woke up the boys before he got in his morning shower.

“They both took their pillows, and they laid next to the bathroom door the whole time I was taking a shower,” Roth said.

Waiting for him to come back, and making sure he didn’t leave again.

When Roth came back from his first deployments with the Rangers, he turned to alcohol. Now 11 years older, he said his days of heavy drinking are over. But his family knows he needs to be alone sometimes.

“You literally have to go off by yourself because you’re just going to explode for no reason,” Roth said. “I won’t ever say PTSD because it’s not. It’s just weird. It’s just something like, you go from such an organized life and having all this responsibility, to coming back, to all of a sudden walking down the street or in a store and some dude’s shoulder bumps you and keeps walking. You’re just like, you want to snap.

“You got to adjust to the world.”

So he’ll grab a basketball and practice by himself, or he’ll head to the court at 6 a.m. to meet some buddies for their daily pickup game.

Dribble, shoot, repeat.

“I’m not worried about paying taxes, I’m not worried about paying bills,” he said. “It’s just basketball.”

The ‘chaos routine’

When the baby cries between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., it’s Daddy’s turn.

The baby is 9-month-old Benjamin, and Daddy is 33-year-old Sgt. Ken Piehler.

Ben was born while Ken was overseas with the 237th Military Police Company. When his father came home alongside Roth and McPherson in January, the newborn was most accustomed to the arms of his mother, Danelle. So Ken started taking that morning shift.

“Now if I wake up with him in the morning, (Ben) doesn’t want me,” Danelle said. “He wants (Ken). That’s their morning routine.”

Ken joined the National Guard while he was in college, and he deployed to Iraq in 2003 when he was just two classes short of graduation. He now works full-time in supply for the New Hampshire National Guard. He and Danelle married in 2011, and they live in Franklin with their 3-year-old daughter Scotlynn and the baby.

Danelle found out she was pregnant with their second child one week before Ken left for Afghanistan. He watched Ben’s birth on FaceTime from the Kandahar base.

“I was happy, and I was nervous for her because I wasn’t a phone call away,” Ken said. “I wasn’t even 24 hours away.”

While he was overseas, Ken would take pictures around the base of a stuffed animal – Swiper the Fox from the children’s show Dora the Explorer – for Scotlynn.

“We told her Daddy was off catching Swiper the Fox from ‘Dora.’ . . . After she got so many pictures catching Swiper the Fox, then Daddy would be home,” Danelle said.

One day in January, Ken was in uniform alongside 109 other soldiers on their way home from Afghanistan. The next, he was watching Disney princesses dance on ice. He had caught Swiper the Fox, and he had to step back into the growing family Danelle had overseen alone for months.

“I had my chaos routine. . . . I had my system,” his wife said.

Danelle is still glued to her iPhone, because she got used to waiting for a message to pop up from her husband. Scotlynn learned to call the American flag “Daddy’s flag.” In their home, Ben grabbed onto his dad’s dog tags, pulling the chain out from underneath Ken’s T-shirt with his little hands.

In Afghanistan, the movie Frozen wasn’t on every night. Ken didn’t have to take the trash out on Mondays, or balance a baby in one arm while picking the pacifier from the floor with the other, or dissect the too-complicated car seat.

But the chaos at home was what he had missed.

“I’d rather –” he stopped himself. “I like it here.”

So when the baby cries between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., it’s Daddy’s turn.

‘In it for the long run’

On Friday, Roth will leave again. July 11, his birthday, two days before his wedding anniversary. He’s going to reclass school for six weeks with the National Guard for military police training.

“What I’m doing is trying to build up my military resume,” he said. “So then units will be like, ‘We want him.’ ”

He’s not in the military for the glory or the medals or the veteran’s license plate. He would rather not wear his uniform in public. He doesn’t want to hear strangers thank him for his service. He gets mad when kids who have been on one or two deployments inflate their service. This interview was his first.

“I went to an MP ball, and all I wore was slacks and a shirt with a tie,” Roth said. “Everybody else was wearing their stuff, and they were all waiting for me for some reason to see what medals and ribbons I have. I was like, ‘I don’t know. I couldn’t tell ya.’ ”

He called this last deployment his easiest – and his worst. Never leaving the base, he oversaw customs operations for equipment leaving the country.

“If anything, it was numbing,” he said.

Once he gets back from school, he’s on orders until March to help another company prepare for a training mission in the United Arab Emirates.

“Hopefully, I can figure out other orders or another deployment I can hop on,” Roth said. “If nothing, I go back to Costco, and I’ll just wait for my call in again. But I’ll be constantly looking for something. I’m not hoping for another war. But if you talk to other soldiers, it’ll be something we miss.”

He predicted two, maybe three, more deployments before he hits his 20-year mark in the military. That’s just nine years away.

“A lot of people ask me if I’m some kind of war junkie or something like that,” he said. “I’m not here for the medals, I’m not here for ribbons or anything. When I joined, it was strictly for the cause. There’s people out there like me, like that.”

He is a man who has paced his entire adult life in lockstep with the military and its needs. He is a man made by this war that is ending, for wars yet to come.

“Guys like me, we’re in it for the long run.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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