Thirteen years ago, I lost my best friend. Not because of his death, but because he answered the call to his country. Sergeant First Class Andrew Stahlnecker is a member of the 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Anchorage, Alaska. A unit in the United States Army and the only United States Army Airborne Team in the Pacific States. He is also my little brother. Andy went into the military the day after his high school graduation, he knew years before that’s what he wanted to be, a soldier.
As with any soldier in the military that long, there are deployments, “I have been deployed three times, all to Afghanistan” he said as I asked him about his deployment experiences. “Each of the three were a little different, different locations, different circumstances.” When he left for boot camp, I took it pretty hard, I sat in his room for weeks, drinking heavily, crying and listening to punk music which we both enjoyed. I had just lost my little brother in a sense. I got accustomed to it after a while but about a year later he went on his first deployment to Afghanistan for 18 months. Everyday for those 18 months was a worry, anyone having a loved one deployed during war times can probably relate. Scary stuff!!
I had to conduct the interview through Facetime with him being in Anchorage and me being in our hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He agreed to let me interview him while he was at work to help “set the scene”. My iPad began ringing, it was Andy on facetime. “Hey bro” he said, “I got some time to talk to you”. As I looked behind him the surroundings were not what I expected.
It was an obvious shared office space, a couple of other desks each with at least two computer monitors, there were a few white boards on the wall with what looked like some names, numbers and other notes, likely stuff I shouldn’t be seeing. Somewhat surprised by the scene I asked him what it is he actually does “Oh I am in charge of the fleet vehicles; maintaining, inspecting, and the record keeping of them.”
Curious, I asked him if he sat in an office all day, “Most days, yes. I am also in charge of making sure all the soldiers training is up to date, I keep track of all the IT equipment on our base and I set duty rosters just to name a few things.” Just then, a younger guy came into the office asking some questions. Andy being Andy, felt the need to introduce me, he was a younger man somewhere in his early 20’s, he was introduced to me as Lieutenant Callus. He and I exchanged greetings, he got the answers he needed and was on his way.
We started to get into the conversation of deployment, and he went on to tell me the process of getting to the final destination, “I have left from a few different bases but basically I took a commercial flight to Maine that had only soldiers on it. We changed planes in Maine and took a grueling 14-hour flight to Germany, during my first deployment this was the longest flight ever!” he said with great enthusiasm. “When we got to Germany we were allowed to get out and get a much-needed stretching of the legs.
After a couple hour layover, we boarded a private military plane and went to what is now an unused base in Kyrgyzstan. At this point we got on a military helicopter and it took us to our base that we were stationed.” As he told me this, I couldn’t help but imagine the fear he must have had on his first deployment, or any of them for that matter. Being a young 19-year-old kid who had never been to far from home. The thoughts and feelings of these young men and women as they are heading into a war zone has to be ones of fear, trepidation and uncertainty of what lies ahead.
We shared a laugh about the first punk rock concert I took him to, “I was thinking the other day about the first concert you took me to” he said with a smile on his face. Back in 2004 or so I had heard a band we liked was playing in Omaha and I thought it would be a good opportunity to take him to his first concert. He was about 14 years old at the time. “Remember how mad mom was?” he asked. We had gotten into the front row right in front of the stage. Punk concerts get rather crazy with people jumping off the stage and slamming into each other. The band we wanted to see finally came on, after a couple songs the lead singer jumped off the stage and accidently kicked Andy right in the mouth, knocking out one of his front teeth! He was right, our mother was furious and as usual, blamed me for it but it was one of my more memorable concerts I have been to.
After a good chuckle about our mother’s anger, we got back into our deployment conversation. I wanted to ask about the landscape there so I could get a visual, I think Americans that have never been there think of mountainous, dry and rocky conditions. “The air was different there” he said, “its heavier, but the temperatures were the same, hot and cold depending on the season. The landscape was not entirely desert and mountains, there are areas of grass and mangroves.” He and
I have had a few discussions over the years about deployments, but I had never asked a series of specific questions. “What was your job and what was an average day like?” I asked. “I provided mortar support for the unit I was in and also worked with surrounding units. On a typical day I would inspect the equipment, the mortar tubes, ammunition, radios, antennas and vehicles. Every couple of days we would go out on missions. Missions could be anything from supply runs, talking to key leaders in certain villages, working with the Afghan National Army in training exercises, or most dangerously, we would go into areas where there was suspected enemy movement.”
As he was finishing up the answer to that question another soldier came into the room. Major Rush Davis, a younger African American man who come to find out worked side by side my brother on a daily basis. Yet again, Andy had to introduce us and yet again I exchanged greetings with the young man.
I thought, maybe I could get some of Major Davis’s perspectives on some of the questions, but I was about to get into the more sensitive subjects and did not want to put him on the spot. I started off slow, asking Andy if he had troubles sleeping at night, “yeah at first I did but after awhile it becomes like home. All of us always had that bit of fear though that as we slept, we could get attacked by enemy rockets.” I was quiet as I let that answer sink in, thinking to myself how awful that must have been and the worry those young men and women go through on a daily basis.
“Hey man”, I said, “the next few questions you don’t have to answer, I understand if you don’t want to.” The next two questions I knew might drum up
paragraph is pretty graphic and disturbing; I understand if you want to skip over** I asked him if he could “un-see” any one thing he experienced on one of his deployments what would that be? His facial expression changed dramatically as he looked over at Major Davis. He kind of put his head down and began to tell me an awful story. “One night”, he said “I was woken up in the middle of the night by another soldier.
We came out of the barracks to see an Afghan lady screaming. Her daughter, who was about 5 had an oil lamp blow up in her hands. Some of her fingers were missing, she had cuts all over her face and was severely burned. Even though the situation was drastic we still had to follow protocol and search them all for bombs or weapons.” His facial expressions really got serious and sad at the same time. “We did what we could for her, because her arms were so burned, we could not administer a regular IV and we had to go into her leg. We doped her up with pain medication, but the situation was serious and there was not much else we could do for her.
We tried to stop the bleeding as best we could. They put her and her mother on a Medi Helicopter and took them to Kandahar Air Base Hospital where they had better treatment than we did in the field. She ended up loosing her vision in one eye, had a couple fingers missing and had severe scaring on her face and arms. Matt”, he said, “it was one of the most awful things I have ever seen, and it took a long time for me to get passed it. For days afterwards it bothered all of us. Some of the toughest guys I have ever been around in tears because of what we witnessed.” I could hardly say anything for a minute, letting that scene play out in my head.
The subject then went on to what sticks out into his head most out of being deployed. He went on to get rather emotional and said “The thing that sticks out the most is missing my family. Not being there for my children’s milestones and birthdays. There were some family crisis’s that I missed out on. Over the years my brother has been stationed in four different places starting in Georgia then to Fort Campbell Kentucky. Columbia, South Carolina and lastly Anchorage Alaska. He is unfortunately twice divorced and has a little girl who is 8 and a little boy who is 4. Both of his children live in other parts of the country and sadly he doesn’t see them much, its very expensive to fly to the Lower 48 from Alaska and he does not often get large chunks of time off. As we finished up our talk, he said to me proudly, “Matt, if I had to do it all over again I would in a heartbeat. I am a soldier, that’s what I am, and this is who I am!”