The Norwich Record, words

We Band of Brothers

In late July 2010, senior Casey Ashfield volunteered for a patrol in eastern Afghanistan with former Norwich student Sgt. Steven DeLuzio. Their mission on that cloudy day was to man traffic control checkpoints with the Afghan National Police. Authorities were looking for two kidnapped Americans whom they feared would be smuggled through the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Afghans were in charge of the checkpoint, so Ashfield and DeLuzio perched on a nearby rock. They watched as one of the officers casually twirled his loaded rifle and then began wrestling with a cohort. As the game grew progressively more dangerous, Ashfield feared the weapon might accidentally go off. The two American soldiers talked about the policemen’s antics and the possibility of their own death amid the jagged peaks of the Afghan mountains.

“I hope I don’t get knocked off by a sniper,” said DeLuzio, before he and Ashfield moved to address the Afghan police.

DeLuzio was no stranger to conflict. At 25 this was his second tour of duty with the Vermont National Guard. In 2006, he left NU to deploy with Task Force Saber. With dark, cropped hair and cheerful brown eyes, his friends at Norwich joked about his “loveable Italian charm” and penchant for good-natured ribbing.

DeLuzio and Ashfield finished work for the day and headed back to the base. It was the last time they were together.

A few weeks later, DeLuzio and Sgt. Tristan Southworth, 21, of Walden, Vt., were on patrol when their unit was attacked.

During the two-hour firefight, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire exploded around them. When the dust cleared, both young men were dead.

By DeLuzio’s August 26th memorial service in Herrera, 77 hours had passed and Ashfield still hadn’t slept. He remembers leaning against a dusty truck, weeping, when a physician’s assistant came by and told him it was time to go to bed.

Back at Norwich, Ashfield, 22, wears a cold black metal band around his wrist. On it is engraved, SGT DELUZIO STEVEN J, 22 AUG 2010, ACO 3 172IN(MTN), ROQIAN AFGHANISTAN.

It is a physical reminder of his year-long deployment with the Vermont National Guard’s A-3/172 Infantry, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (MTN). In 2010, more than 30 Norwich students deployed with the 86th this last time.

This fall will mark 10 years since Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom began. DeLuzio is one of five Norwich students who have been killed during that time.

Ashfield says his wristband serves as a memorial to a friend he doesn’t want to forget.

“The worst week I ever had was when DeLuzio died,” he says.

VERMONT GOES TO WAR

Last January, more than 70 Norwich alums and students packed their rucks for Afghanistan in the largest Vermont National Guard deployment since the Second World War.

A year later, their ACUs faded by the sun, 14 students joined the ranks of the roughly 100 veterans already on campus for the start of the spring 2011 semester.

In March of 1942, when almost the entire Corps of Cadets marched off the Hill to fight in World War II, the campus was instantly transformed into a skeleton of its pre-war status.

By comparison, today’s student deployments go largely unnoticed. Soldiers trickle in and out of school, leaving as individuals or in small groups. Many don’t return, choosing instead to resume their education at some later date, somewhere else, or perhaps not at all.

Those that do come back right away ride a difficult line: expected to perform like combatants in war and then seamlessly transition into being carefree undergraduates. It’s harder than it looks. And as the last large group of Norwich students who left with Task Force Saber found, sometimes the gulf between their worlds is too great.

World War II’s warriors came back to a heroes’ welcome, the toast of their hometowns, with the entire nation celebrating the end of the war. Today’s youngest veterans are virtually invisible to everyone save their families and closest friends. And with no clear end in sight to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of future deployments is never far from their consciousness.

BAND OF BROTHERS

It was only a year earlier the student soldiers stood side-by-side at the Army Aviation Support Facility, with a winter chill in the air and the strains of the Army band playing.

Junior Scott Gumpert, 22, the only person from his Douglasville, Pa. graduating class of 500 to join the military, stood, his lanky frame at attention. He wondered how long the ceremony was going to last, as politicians’ proxies and military leaders delivered their goodbye proclamations. An outdoorsman with a perennially upbeat nature, Gumpert has dreams beyond his deployment of hiking the Appalachian Trail and biking across America. His friends like to joke that his athleticism comes from his “smoke-free, dip-free lifestyle.”

Also in formation, junior Brett Johnson, 21, from Lynn, Mass., waited, anxious to get going. His father, himself an Iraq vet, along with his mother, grandfather, and brother, were there to say goodbye. “My mom was crying. My dad was choked up. It was hard for them to see their son going to war,” says Johnson.

The students weren’t surprised when they found out they were going to be deployed. The war in the Middle East was already the longest war in U.S. history. They signed up knowing full well that they would likely be sent overseas. The question was never if, but when?

James Chido wanted to deploy. At age 26, he’d served on active duty for three years and had started and stopped school at Norwich twice. Married and divorced, he already had a lifetime of experience under his belt.

Other students were fresh off the training field. Josh Davis, now 23, a burly Norwich rugby player and gentle giant, enlisted to support a good friend.

“My roommate said, ‘I’m going to basic and I’m getting deployed,’” says Davis, whose older brother had already finished a tour of Iraq. “I said, ‘Don’t worry dude, I’ll go with you.’ Then I went and enlisted.”

When Davis got to basic training, however, his roommate was nowhere to be found. “I was like, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘They are not letting me join: I’m too big,’” Davis laughs. “He’s a big football guy… So I deployed and he stayed back here at school.”

Although Daniel Hart always knew he wanted to become an officer, he signed up to have the experience of being an enlisted man. “To learn to do something, first you have to have it taught to you … like wrestling,” Hart says. “You really need to be in the hold to do it correctly. I thought being enlisted and doing the grunt work would make me a better officer.”

There they were. This small band of Norwich brothers lined up; and group by group, ceremony by ceremony, they headed off to war.

STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

“The plane door opens and you are like, ‘this isn’t so bad,’” says John Lara, 20. “Then all of a sudden you are hit in the face with a burst of scalding hot air” at an elevation 6,400 feet higher than the training site. “You get off the plane gasping.”

The landscape at their feet looked like “the surface of Mars,” says senior Jim Black, 21, of Lynnfield, Mass.

For Johnson, the barren remoteness of the country inspired feelings of adventure on the American frontier. “Like the people that were going out exploring and looking for gold,” he says.

As soldiers in the same company, Gumpert, Johnson, Lara, Black, Chido, and Davis, along with Jared Labello, Logan Howard, and Justin Macura, were attached to the Cavalry’s Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition unit, sharing most of their time on a fairly remote outpost, surrounded by the odor of burning trash and with only a trench for a bathroom.

Purposely scruffy, they worked to grow beards—when they could—an indication of manliness in Afghan culture.

They also adapted to the close, physical contact between Afghans. “Personal bubbles don’t exist over there,” says Davis. “When you come up to talk to somebody, they come up to shake your hand and say ‘Salaam Alaykum,’ and afterwards they hold you [in an embrace] for a good three minutes while talking to you.”

On days when there was no hugging, both their greatest adventures and their most terror-filled moments took place. For Norwich senior Labello, a one-day road trip turned into the longest night of his life.

The slim, quick talking Labello was part of a platoon sent out on a reconnaissance mission to find a new route to Jalalabad through the area’s cragged wildness. The soldiers set out in the freshness of morning, clamoring aboard armored monster trucks stacked with a turret on top. A strategic military city, Jalalabad sits at the base of the Khyber Pass in eastern Afghanistan. Situated between two large mountain ranges, the Hindu Kush to the north and the Safed Kuh to the south, it marks the entrance from Afghanistan to the Indian Subcontinent.

The top-heavy vehicles struggled through tight mountain passes, their wheels teetering on the edges of the road, with more than a 500-meter drop below.

After hours of terrified driving—but only a few miles under their belts—Labello remembers turning a sharp corner to find the team’s forward truck dangling from the cliff.

The ground was slowly giving way.

The drop didn’t look deadly, but their position on the road next to a small village, known to be a Taliban stronghold, would turn them into sitting ducks. As the soldiers tried to extricate the million-dollar vehicle, it tipped over, smashing on its side, the bullet-proof glass cracking.

Desperate, the unit radioed for permission to blow up the truck and head back to the FOB. The response came back a strong “no,” but to alleviate concerns they were grudgingly promised backup choppers for protection. As the sky darkened and it began to rain, Labello and his fellow soldiers waited anxiously for the hum of rotor blades that never came.

For hours they stared at the village and the village stared back. Labello could see eyes watching their every movement. As they hunkered down for the night, he realized that the soldier to his left had only a shotgun for a weapon.

Labello recalls thinking, “This is either going to be a very quick night or a long one.”

A LAND OF CONTRASTS

Some of the greatest sunsets Chido has ever seen happened that year. There were, quite literally, rainbows and puppies everywhere, so it seemed ironic that in the midst of all this beauty there were bullets too—lots of them.

Johnson says combat is the biggest rush he’s ever felt. “I felt scared the first couple times, then after that you just get used to it and you are actually mad when you don’t get hit,” he says. “After you get over the fear of dying, it just becomes a huge rush that you’ll probably never feel from anything else.”

There has to be a balance though,” says Lara. “You need to control it because if you let it control you, you can never do your job. So you need to find that balance.”

“That’s where the people around you come into play” says Chido. “They bring you back to where you were before. You talk to them. You sit down and have a meal or something like that. So you can ease back into that state that you were in before you got hit.”

But even within their tight-knit Norwich group, there are things no one likes to speak of: patrols that didn’t go quite right, accidents where civilians or friends were hurt, and haunting guilt over things they might have done differently.

They’re bruised physically: some worn down by body armor, some with hearing loss, some with injuries left from a rollover. And there are emotional bruises as well. Back home, in world where modern conveniences mask the frailty of human existence; their classmates are texting back and forth about their weekend. In Afghanistan, the soldiers spent every day exposed to a stripped-down version of life. They made tough calls, the kind that rip you up inside, like whether or not to open fire on a civilian vehicle, or trust an innocent-looking child who might be working for al-Qaeda.

But life goes on, regardless. Johnson turned 21 while in Afghanistan. His mom sent a marble cake, with frosting in a separate package. One of his favorite memories from that time is of frosting the cake in his dusty room, and afterwards the gift of a Snack Pack and grenade from his lieutenant.

By November, the affable Davis was really looking forward to coming home. Including training time, he’d been away from his family, friends, and girlfriend for 16 months. Most of his rook buddies had graduated and he was ready get on with his life. He wanted to be normal, hang out with friends, go to bars, and “not be in a war zone.”

Black, who had his Norwich ring sent overseas, was looking forward to “just being able to sit on a couch and watch some television.”

They had missed out on graduations, formals, friends, parties, and a year of school, and they were ready to come back—unaware of just how much they had changed inside.

OUR GOAL IS TO “GET OUT OF SCHOOL”

In Afghanistan Labello remembers the feeling of always being watched by eyes on the mountains. The first thing he did when he walked into his dorm room was close the curtains.

“Then I realized that I didn’t need to do that,” he laughs.

But habits developed in combat are hard to shake. Likewise, the emotional extremes of exhilaration and terror that accompany deployment are not easily replicated in college life. Very quickly the excitement over coming home is tinged with a longing for the action of war and soldierly duties.

“Coming back the first week was very hectic for all of us,” says Labello. “We are still trying to get back into the swing of things. You go from being an authority figure to being a student again. It’s a very strange concept.”

“I was actually talking to Professor [David] Orrick about this earlier,” agrees Ashfield. “He was talking about how the academic gears in your head have a little rust on them. You haven’t had to think about abstract concepts. [Over there] you just had to worry about staying alive, dodging mortars, stuff like that.”

Johnson has had moments of drifting off in class. “You start thinking about something else, then you come back two seconds later and you missed a good paragraph of what [the professor] was talking about, and then you are completely lost the rest of the class.”

“You have to relearn everything. It’s really hard,” says Chido. “The teachers try to give you a little more attention but it’s hard because they have 14 other people that are already up to speed and this one person who isn’t.”

Overall, the group has experienced mixed success with everything from getting re-enrolled to registering for classes to figuring out their housing situation. By far the most difficult transition has been going back to the life of a cadet.

“Being in the Corps is very hard … for all of us,” says Chido. “Been there. Done that. This is not how the real Army works. It’s hard to sit there and take it.”

For many it’s the minutia of day-to-day cadet life that is the most taxing.

“I like to have my stuff neat, but not to the standard that they have … like, why do my socks have to be arranged like this?” says Johnson. “When I was a freshman I thought it was good because it gives you attention to detail and some sort of structure. Now we want to be in the Corps but we don’t want to be messed with. We just want to be here and graduate. Period.”

Their deployment has left them feeling older than their peers. Their classmates and rook buddies have graduated and commissioned, and except for each other, many of their close friends are gone. The realities of their deployment are hard to explain, no matter how well-intentioned and interested their peers may be.

“Our goal is just to get out of school,” says Chido.

Most are working hard to simply buckle down and finish up. Stuck in what feels like no-man’s land, school has become a weigh-station between the before and the after. But what the after is, no one really knows. The old cliché, “you can’t go home again,” rings painfully true. Not only has home changed while the students were away, but they have changed as well.

EASING THE TRANSISTION

To address the students’ concerns, Norwich created a Veterans Affairs Office in 2009 to provide advocacy, coordination, and referral services. The office acts as an ombudsman, helping with such things as class selection, drill pay issues, congressional inquiries, military leave of absence and, for the first time, registering for classes before returning to campus.

“After a combat tour your perspectives and priorities change,” says Joyce Rivers, the Director of Veterans Affairs. “Military transition is hard enough, but when it comes to a combat tour, it is particularly hard. Many soldiers feel like they can’t share their experiences, or if they ask for help it will be held against them later on.”

Because stress-related issues such as PTSD, alcohol abuse, and divorce are statistically higher for veterans, the office also provides confidential counseling and referrals. But oftentimes veterans are slow to take advantage of what is offered.

“The reality is that if you go in for treatment, you could be disqualified for service,” says Rivers.

Ironically, the students don’t really think of themselves as veterans—young and strong and with their lives still ahead of them.

“When I think of a vet, I tend to think of World War II, Vietnam,” says Davis. “Those guys were hard core. And now I’ve come back and I’ve got vets from that time saying, ‘thanks for your service.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ You go back and watch ‘Band of Brothers’ and you are like, ‘That is War.’”

“You were a trench warfare guy, a jungle warfare guy,” adds Ashfield. “We just went to Afghanistan.

“We all often talked about the guys that were in the Vietnam War and we have a lot more respect for them after this experience. I guess you could say those guys are our heroes,” Labello says.

THE WAY WE WERE

In the Wise Campus Center mess hall, they sit around Formica-topped tables, their uniforms stripped of rank, their past colliding with their future.

“I miss carrying a weapon,” Chido says, his comment met by nods.

Their M16s, M4s, M249s, M9s, and M203s twitch like phantom limbs: They reach reflexively for them and find they are not there. Ashfield likens it to a cell phone for the average person. “If you forget it, you start freaking out.”

Despite how different they may feel on the inside, the soldiers gradually drift back into the stream of their former lives, swept along by the current of the academic year. Their own cell phones are once again powered up for spring break planning—the pleasures of cars, bars, and dating no longer a distant fantasy. There are tests to take and projects to finish, but they hold on tight to each other, checking up on one another if someone doesn’t show up for class or acts a little odd.

“Everyone else doesn’t understand what we went through—and are still going through—trying to readjust,” says Johnson. “It’s hard at some points.”

Back at the Wise Campus Center, Black opens his camouflage backpack to reveal a neatly folded Norwich flag.

“This has been everywhere with me,” he says. Tucked away in his ruck, the flag traveled from the green hills of Vermont to the barren mountain ranges of Afghanistan. It bumped over dirt roads, hung in B-huts, and came out for ceremonial occasions and photo ops. It’s just an object, but it holds the memories of this group of Norwich brothers in both their joy and their grief. On a larger scale, it’s a symbol of the things they share.

“Touch it,” says Black. “You can still feel the sand from Afghanistan.”