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A generation at war: Stories from the frontlines and the homefront

A generation at war: Stories from the frontlines and the homefront
Dueck (Carroll County Times)

War is a well-known cycle.

Sometimes, it's in retaliation to an attack on American soil. Other times, it's to help bring democracy and a stabilized peace to a divided, warring nation.

With war comes the knowledge that American men and women will pack their bags and leave their families and their homes and all they've ever known to take up arms in another country.

The 9/11 generation has grown up in wartime. As of Sept. 30, about 32,000 Maryland residents in total have been deployed to either Afghanistan or Iraq since 9/11, according to the U.S. Department of Defense; the department does not have a county-specific number.

Each of those soldiers has a story. And with that, comes the stories of the mothers and spouses they leave behind.

A wife

Jennifer Dueck was standing outside of Staples in Westminster when her phone rang in December 2008.

"Hey," her husband Nathan said. "I just wanted to tell you before you found out through the grapevine. ..."

A roadside bomb had gone off about 30 yards from him in Iraq, and everyone in his platoon was ordered to undergo a medical evaluation. He was fine, though, he reassured her.

She collected herself and went into the store. A military wife just has to keep going, hoping the next day brings no news.

But in the checkout line, tears welled in her eyes. Her emotions flooded over.

"You've already put your spouse on a white bus, and you don't know if that's the last time you're going to see them," she said. "You're living your day-to-day routine normally, but then you get that phone call that a world away, things are not so good."

Jennifer, a Carroll County native, met and fell in love with Nathan Dueck, a South Carolinian. The couple married in March 2008. Jennifer left her Carroll County home to live with her husband at the Twentynine Palms base in California.

Nathan Dueck left for Iraq in August of that year. For seven months, he was the soldier on the front lines fighting.

On a March day in 2009, a crowd had formed in the base. Jennifer stood away from the gaggle of people as the buses pulled in. But when she locked eyes with Nathan, she took off and jumped into his arms.

"It really is one of those things out of a movie," she recalled. "It's the biggest relief, yet it's so surreal, to have your spouse, your love, done, back."

But he wasn't back for good. In September 2011, Nathan left for Helmand Province, a volatile region in Afghanistan.

"This was a much different deployment. I had a 15-month-old [girl] and a basically 1-month-old son, and that was totally scary," Jennifer Dueck said. "It's not just me that I'm worried about. I'm worried about my kids hugging their father for what may be the last time."

Fear gnawed at Jennifer. She felt like she constantly had to look over her shoulder just to make sure a government vehicle hadn't pulled in front of her place or a man in a uniform wasn't heading for her door.

On Christmas, she broke down in tears as her family members opened presents. She felt guilty for experiencing the joy of family while her husband was risking his life in a dangerous place thousands of miles away.

In late April, Nathan Dueck came home, and this time for good. It was time to be with his family, putting Jennifer's constant dread to rest.

"The main sacrifice is by these service members," she said, "but it's not easy being the ones left behind."

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A mother

Debbie Thomas' cellphone lived in her hand. She didn't sleep much.

A mother spends so much time protecting her child, but when her two boys are deployed to Afghanistan, there's not much to do but hope for the best.

"It was probably the worst thing I have ever been through as a mom," said Thomas, a Manchester resident. "I feel like I got a double dose because it was two. I don't know what it'd be like to just have one go."

In 2008, her eldest son Mark Thomas Jr., then 22, decided to join the Army.

"He said [to his brother], 'Hey Chris, do you want to go?'" she recalled.

Christopher Thomas, then 18, said yes. So on Sept. 27, 2008, they left for basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia.

The two boys complement each other well. Fear is not a word in her youngest son's vocabulary. He's extremely social and is always up to try anything once, Debbie said.

Mark, however, is more comfortable in his box. He's open to trying new things, but when possible, he likes to keep his home base nearby, Debbie said.

At training, his little brother served as that taste of home as the boys were "battle buddies" at Fort Benning, Debbie said. They did everything together. They shared bunk beds and parachuted out of planes and pranked their comrades.

They were infantrymen - a fact that worried their mother.

"That was probably the most devastating thing," Debbie Thomas said. "I didn't mind them going into the service. But real bright, real well-educated boys ... right on the front lines."

Her sons left for a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan December 2009, but they were on opposite sides of the country, which Debbie said was a little "unnerving."

Debbie can put together pieces of that year of their life to create a glossed over portrait of her sons' experiences.

Mark was on foot patrol. He was involved in heavy fire and slept on the side of mountains in the wilderness. Chris saw less bullets and mainly manned computers.

But details are sparse.

"They've always told me, 'You don't need to know all that, Mom,' " Debbie said. "They know what it does to me, and they know that I won't sleep and that it upsets me."

Chris is going to make a career out of the military and plans on working in counter intelligence. But for now, he's safely in Italy with his wife and newborn baby boy. Debbie's only seen him a handful of times since his deployment.

But since Mark has been working at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia since April 2011, she's seen how fighting can wage a war on the mind.

"He has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] type symptoms as any soldier would first coming back," she said. "It's hard for him to be in crowded, loud areas. He doesn't like sudden noises. He doesn't like a lot of commotion. He wasn't sleeping well when he first came home, as with every soldier."

Her young boys went off to war and grew up.

An Army Reserves sergeant

Billy Hatfield was witnessing history in the making.

In March 2003, his division crept into Iraq. They were the first American soldiers to do so as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, so when the Iraqi army noticed, they blew up one lane of the country's main bridge to slow the soldiers from arriving in Baghdad. They were just 12 miles south of that destination.

Staff Sgt. Hatfield and his engineering company specializing in bridges sprang into action. They assembled a bridge that looks like a road - yellow stripes and all - to allow the American soldiers to cross the Euphrates River.

For seven months, Hatfield marched along the front lines with the soldiers, as he witnessed the invasion of a country.

"I actually got to see the Army fight as a whole," he said.

In October 2003, he transitioned back to his Mount Airy to live the civilian life as a member of the Army Reserves with relative ease. He worked as a field representative for a flooring company, met a girl, moved to Union Bridge, bought a house and had three children.

So when he got the call in January 2010 that he was being deployed again, he knew this time would be much different.

More than six years had gone by. American troops were already established in Iraq. And he had a family.

His 12-month-deployment started in June 2010.

"To go from 2003 to 2010, it's like we have cities there now," he said.

He was older and more trained this time around. He was the bridge inspector and lead vehicle for his platoon, navigating their vehicles across Iraq, work that earned him a bronze star.

Yet, coming home this time was different. He wasn't as young and the change of pace was harder.

"I miss being there," he said. "You get into a routine and the adrenaline rush of going out onto a patrol is priceless, and it's hard to get that same feeling here. You get into your groove of doing things, and you come back here, and it's almost more difficult trying to get into a groove here."

The first six months were a struggle, he said. Being away had taken a toll on his relationship, and he ended up getting divorced.

But now he's been back for more than a year and the Union Bridge resident has found that coveted routine as a superintendent at Clune Construction Company.

"It's just hard being gone that long," he said. "It was a hard transition coming home."

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