Coming home from the war in Afghanistan
Three soldiers from Lake Oswego in the 41st Brigade Combat Team of the Oregon Army National Guard have returned home after a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Spc. Douglas Ashby, Sgt. First Class Joseph Marcotte and Maj. Michael Wegner were trained for three to four months prior to their deployment with the primary mission of training the Afghan National Army.
They later received a secondary mission of also training the Afghanistan Police Force. While deployed, they also performed various humanitarian missions for schools, clinics and general maintenance in Afghanistan. This was the largest wartime deployment of Oregon Army National Guardsmen since World War II when the 41st Infantry Division was mobilized for service.
Here's a look at their stories:
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Ashby was the first of the three to return. He came back on May 24 with about 60 other soldiers.
Ashby signed an eight-year initial contract, with six years of regular National Guard obligation and two years of Inactive Ready Reserve. He went in three years ago.
Ashby volunteered to go to help fill a slot after someone backed out. For the first five months he was an intelligence officer assigned to mentor the Afghan National Army while simultaneously tracking his own people.
His experience was unique in that after the first five months he and his platoon were flown back to Oregon on a mission for two weeks to escort a group of 63 Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police back to Fort Riley in Kansas.
'Having one interpreter along the way allowed the people who were replacing us to experience working with the Afghans before they got in the country,' Ashby said.
When Ashby got back to Afghanistan, he was assigned to help the Afghan National Police because 'they were way behind.'
Not everything over there went smoothly, however.
'A lot of the funding, attention and assets would be going to Iraq,' Ashby said. 'It would have been nice to have backups. I think we're there for a whole bunch of reasons and we don't know how it will play out.
'I think we're doing the right thing but I don't think we had any other choice. At this point I could see it slowly turning around and becoming efficient.'
Ashby currently is still in a state of euphoric adjustment.
'You know how in the movie 'Office Space,' after the main character gets hypnotized?' asked Ashby. 'Then he's just really happy about doing absolutely nothing? It's kind of like that.'
A bartender for 10 years prior to joining the military, Ashby is currently working at the National Guard Armory in Lake Oswego. He is looking forward to going back to school, spending time with his girlfriend and loved ones and just enjoying being a regular civilian again.
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Wegner was the second soldier to return home. His unit arrived on June 10 in the second wave of about 250 soldiers.
Wegner had worked in the Oregon National Guard for more than 20 years, with the last eight of them being full time. This, he said, 'made the transition to go from regular life to deployment much easier.'
Wegner had already been deployed once before in 2003 for a year in Iraq. This time around, he was a company commander in charge of 300 people.
'It's not as glamorous as it sounds,' Wegner said. 'There was a lot of administrative stuff, handling promotions, issues people are having, that kind of thing. It's still important though, because somebody has to take care of those kinds of things.'
The best thing about being over there, Wegner said, was getting to help out on various humanitarian efforts. For example, his unit sponsored a village called Deyeheya that had a population of 60,000 people. Guardsmen helped build a canal to control the river flow, arranged for villagers to have an ambulance, assisted in installing wells and gave supplies to a small school.
'It was the most rewarding thing,' Wegner said. 'Nothing's better than helping a village that was so poor be able to become more sustainable.'
Another thing Wegner found both fascinating and frustrating were the cultural differences between Americans and Afghans.
'It's enlightening to work with other cultures,' Wegner said. 'The people there are super nice and friendly, very hospitable and family oriented. It's humbling that people can get by with so little and be happy.'
'However,' said Wegner, 'it's also very hard to work with sometimes. We have a certain sense of time in America. Culturally they don't have the same view of it. They're just not in a rush to get things done. They have a phrase, 'God willing, when it happens it happens.' That's hard for us when we're trying to fix something by a certain time or schedule someone to come in.'
Wegner also felt like many Americans were slightly misinformed about what really goes on over there. He said that many people want to group Afghanistan and Iraq into a single fight when they are really two separate events.
'I definitely, wholeheartedly believe there is potential to do great things in Afghanistan,' Wegner said. 'It will just take time, and I sometimes wonder if it's more than we're willing to give. There are a lot of factors in play making it difficult, such as religion.'
Wegner also talked about what being over there to help stabilize and teach a society meant for Afghanistan as a whole.
'We are changing Afghanistan, but we are changing it for the next generation. The kids in schools are the ones who are seeing the changes and seeing Americans there helping out, so hopefully that's a good thing.'
The main goal of the National Guard, Wegner recognizes, is to help get the Afghan police and army to be self-sufficient. It is their view that those two things can help stabilize a country.
Wegner is getting ready to marry his fiancé on Aug. 25. They are then planning to move to Virginia so he can work at the National Guard headquarters located there.
'I have a lot invested with the military,' Wegner said. 'I want to retire with them.'
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Marcotte was the last soldier to arrive home, coming in on June 17 with a group of about 80 others.
He has been in the army for 27 years. He first went in as a track and recovery person working on tanks and heavy equipment in 1980. After basic training and school, he worked in Arkansas for maintenance, then transferred to the army reserve in Illinois before coming to Oregon to do maintenance for the National Guard.
Marcotte was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2006 and was originally supposed to work in maintenance. He wound up being on an Embedded Trainer Team that taught the Afghan National Army to repair trucks and do tracking reports for their vehicles.
Marcotte was also able to do some humanitarian work, helping build some schools and working with villages to help build a dam.
'As scary as it was sometimes, there was a bit of routine,' Marcotte said. 'Every Friday they had a bazaar where locals came and sold stuff. It was a nice area, quiet, a relaxing day with a lot of culture.'
Another thing Marcotte enjoyed over there were gifts sent in the mail.
'And we got girl scout cookies. We got a lot of stuff - we went through a lot of Chapstick. But I remember loving the girl scout cookies.'
The lack of good equipment and support was something that Marcotte commented on as well.
'It still needs a lot of work, but I still support it,' Marcotte said. 'Most soldiers are killed in Iraq, so that's where the money's going. But if we can train the Afghans to be better off in their own country, I support it.'
Now Marcotte is just trying to adjust to civilian life, something that is easier said than done.
'The instincts I've gathered are hard to deal with,' Marcotte said. 'I'll jump and be ready to attack when there are planes, cars backfiring, lots of people, etc.'
Marcotte also talked about his mandatory month-long break.
'They won't let me work until I've integrated back into society. Right now I'm like a BB in a boxcar. I love non-military commercials, though.'
Married for seven years with three kids and a granddaughter, Marcotte sees no reason to leave Lake Oswego.
'I've lived here for 16 years, and everybody's been so friendly,' Marcotte said. 'Some people in Portland have spit on my uniform here - but LO's much more friendly.'
Even at 48 years old, Marcotte still wants to remain enlisted.
'By the time I'm done I'll have 35 or 40 years under my belt,' he said. 'It's always an adventure.'