Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Second Time Around: A Solider Returns to War

By Patricia Adams

Sean McCabe described his flight to Baghdad with one word: nerve-wracking. The journey actually started twenty-one months before when he enlisted in the United States Army in April of 2004.

“It’s a long flight. We left around 8 o'clock at night. We flew from Ft. Hood, Texas to Maine. From Maine we went to Frankfurt Germany and then on to Kuwait.” It wasn’t long after arriving that Sean realized just how very far he was from home. “We were on a training exercise in the desert… sleeping in a foxhole. When we woke up there was a thick mist over the sand and a couple of feet away from our trench, out of nowhere, there was a goat herder saying his morning prayers—I looked at my buddy and all I could say was, ‘This ‘aint Queens’.”

After a few weeks the unit flew the last leg of their trip. “We got to Baghdad at 8:46 PM on December 24, 2005—it was the farthest thing from Christmas Eve you could ever imagine.”

Now, nearly four years later, Sean McCabe will celebrate Christmas Eve at home with his entire family including future wife Melanie Castellano and their 15-month-old baby Kiera. But the memory of a Christmas past spent in the desert will call again on January 17, 2010 when Sean McCabe will journey as a soldier in the United States Army once again—this time to Afghanistan.

The McCabe family watched with anticipation, much like the rest of the nation, a December 2 speech by President Barack Obama, in which he outlined the details of a plan that would send 30,000 additional troops off to war. In the prime-time speech delivered from West Point, the President also told the American public that the same troops will start leaving Afghanistan long before the end of his first term.

Despite the dire warnings of more troops being deployed, no one at the McCabe house expected what was to come in the mailbox the next day. “When you enlist you are committed to the Army for the next eight years of your life,” Sean explained. “I didn’t expect to get notified the day after the speech, but I always knew there was a chance that this day would come.” And so after spending the last two and a half years as an inactive ready reserve, Sean McCabe is going back to war.

In the midst of his world as a soon-to-be-husband—Sean will marry his sweetheart Melanie on December 27—father, Community Board 10 member, firefighter hopeful and a host of other things, Sean McCabe will ship out to begin his second tour with orders that say he will be coming home within 400 days.

“Going back is not something I would say I want to do — I’m going to leave my wife and baby behind this time—that makes it so much harder.” But despite the emotional ties of his current situation, Sean rationalizes his position, “Nobody wants us to go. If they didn’t need us, they wouldn’t call us.”

In response to the many people who are opposed to additional troops being deployed, Sean McCabe says he understands the way people think. “It’s very difficult for the American public to understand what’s going on. But, when you are there and you see these people you start to understand. They’re hardworking and trying to provide for their families in the middle of war and chaos. We are the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. We can fix this and we belong there.”

Much of Sean’s duties overseas he expects will be along similar lines to his first tour. “I will be in a special operations command,” but he further explains how a unit doesn’t generally have the details of their mission much beforehand. “We never know exactly where we are going and what we are doing until that moment is upon us.”

What he does know from past experience is that for about 98% of the time he spends away he will be — his buddies at his side—in harm’s way. “One of the most valuable lessons I learned the first time over was the difference between a snap and a “whizz”. You always want a “whizz”.” The “whizz” is then defined by McCabe as the sound a bullet makes as it flies past you. A snap is the sound of a bullet as it breaks the sound barrier—usually within inches of your head. Sean McCabe chuckles, “You see my point about the “whizz” over the snap right?”

There are many things Sean McCabe says will get him through. “First of all, I am never without friends. Within minutes of my first shipment of vacuum-sealed homemade brownies from Aunt Pat, guys are knocking themselves out to protect me.”

Then there is what Sean says really kept him safe the last time and, ultimately what will get him through again. “A lot of guys do not have the family and the support system that I do. My family is always there to talk, to listen and to hold me up. They are my strength and my armor. Anyway as long as I’m back by St. Paddy’s Day 2011, it’s all good.”

Top: Among Kiera McCabe’s favorite times are those she spends in the "Airborne Division" her father runs in the family's living room. Left: Sean McCabe sits atop a tank with a buddy in one of few idle moments out in the Iraqi desert.

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