Engineers return from Afghanistan

by Terri Winder
(On April 25, the 624th Engineer Company Utah National Guard Unit returned from an eleven month deployment to Afghanistan, bringing back a number of San Juan County natives, including the Carr brothers, Montana and David. Their father, Ivan, also deployed with the unit but came home earlier, having suffered injuries.
Following is the second part of the Carr family story. Last week, we recounted how the three men were deployed together until Ivan fell as he was climbing off of a building that was under construction.)
Unsure of the extent of Ivan’s injuries, staff at Salerno decided to fly him to Bagram. A few hours later, Montana accompanied his father in a C-130.
At Bagram it was determined that underneath his full backside bruise, Ivan had a fractured pelvis, four broken ribs on the left side, and cracked L-4 and L-5 vertebrae.
Though he didn’t want to leave his unit, and especially his sons, Ivan’s injuries had earned him a one-way ticket to the States.
Lisa Carr was awakened by a ringing phone at 3 a.m., not something she wants to hear with three family members in a war zone. It was Montana, calling to tell her about the accident. Later, the Army called, making arrangements to meet Ivan at Ft. Sam Houston, in San Antonio, TX.
Arriving within 12 hours of Ivan’s flight from Germany, she went immediately to the ICU. Though Ivan was gaunt with pain, and looked worse than she had ever seen him, she was grateful to find him alive.
San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC) is the largest inpatient medical facility in the Department of Defense. It primarily treats burn victims (from bombs) and amputees. The war became very real for Lisa as she found herself surrounded by young men with grievous injuries.
She especially remembers one soldier without any remaining limbs. “They had their whole lives ahead of them,” she said and then chokes up, unable to continue. The average age is 22 years.
A few days later, a special visitor brightened their day. The Utah National Guard sent LTC Bernie Spoerri to SAMMC to check on the couple and provide support. He spent the afternoon visiting and then took Lisa to Fort Sam Houston PX to buy clothes for Ivan. This meant a great deal to them.
Four days later, Ivan was released to the Wounded Warrior project. Lisa was designated as his NMA (non-medical attendant) and she stayed by his side as he went from the hospital to a barracks apartment facility.
After they arrived by shuttle, they were issued a sheet, a blanket, a pillow, and a towel. Ivan spent a very uncomfortable night on a hard bed, finally getting Lisa to stuff his duffle bag under the head of the mattress so he could breathe.
Despite the intense pain Ivan was in, the next morning he was expected to attend formation, a stark reminder that he was still a soldier. Afterward, Lisa spent the day pushing him in a wheelchair to his intake appointments.
Despite their rough first night, Ivan and Lisa both have high praise for the Wounded Warrior Project. The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project is to “foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.”
Their goal is to raise awareness and enlist public aid for the needs of injured service members, which—in the Carrs’ opinion—they do very well.
Lisa stayed with Ivan for three weeks, returning home when he could get around on his own using crutches. Meanwhile, his three dependent children flew in using “Hero Miles” to see their father.
A few days after Lisa’s return to Blanding, Ivan called, complaining of severe pain in his chest. Ivan went to the hospital, where they found a blood clot in his lung; he was then put on Coumadin for three months.
It would be about four months before Ivan was finally released to come home. While juggling work and family (including two foreign exchange students), Lisa returned one more time to attend appointments with Ivan, which helps her understanding his condition.
Patients can be kept at Ft. Sam Houston up to three years, as burn victims receive skin grafts and amputees receive prosthetics. The soldiers have to heal both physically and mentally, as they learn to live a different life than they had planned.
Back in Afghanistan, David and Montana received periodic updates on their father and continued with their work. They became acquainted with Afghan civilians and wondered at their attitudes.
David said the older generation seems prideful and generally resents the presence of Americans, but the younger generation appears to be more accepting. David and Montana both empathize with the Afghanis, realizing that they have lived with war their entire lives.
“Their quality of life is so poor,” Montana said. “It is easy for the Taliban to manipulate them. For instance, by either threatening his family members or promising pay, the Taliban convince a villager to place an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) along the roadside.
“Then, if caught while doing it, the villager gets shot and the Americans take the blame for the death. However, the Afghanis are beginning to stand up for themselves. It’s getting to the point where the villagers are hunting down the Taliban and killing them.”
Even as engineers, members of the 624th are not immune to danger. Active duty soldiers would escort their convoys. As their construction team went from FOB to FOB, the Army would most often fly them in helicopters. The Afghan soldiers didn’t carry weapons while around Coalition forces; too many Afghan soldiers have turned on Americans. For the same reason, the ANA and Coalition Forces had separate, though adjoining bases.
In October, David and his fellow troops were sent to help rebuild a FOB called Zormat, just below Gardez Providence. It was heavily damaged when a truck carrying a Conex box filled with explosives was detonated at its perimeter.
Later, it was determined that the truck carried four insurgents (two of them wearing suicide vests) and they had detonated an estimated 8,000 lbs. of explosives. The blast created a 15’ crater with a perimeter 50’ across. Shrapnel exploded into the sky, popping the base’s security balloon (their “eye in the sky”) which is 1,500 feet up. The blast blew apart wooden buildings and leveled cement ones.
There were 120 Coalition Forces on the FOB, as well as men in the adjoining ANA base. However, other than the men in the truck, there were no casualties. Two soldiers were injured enough to receive critical care.
One was blown across a kitchen, hitting his head against a cement wall. The other had been bench pressing weight in the gym when the explosion went off; he dropped the weights on his chest.
Other bases—which had experienced this same type of attack—were not so fortunate. “Other than things like that, every day was the same,” Montana said, “except for the food. You could tell what day it is by what we eat. Friday is ribs, Saturday is burgers, and Sunday is steak.”
“The food at Camp Clark is really good,” David added. “The guy in charge of it had owned a five- star restaurant in Las Vegas. Most of his help is from Third World Countries. We had the best Christmas dinner I’ve ever eaten. Everything from dinner to décor was superb.”
Despite the good food, both young men came home very lean. “We just went over there and did what had to be done,” Montana said. “We lived it 24/7. There were about 500 men on base; about 100 of them were civilian contractors. We were only scheduled to work eight hours a day, but we were always on call, if needed.”
When not needed, they could go to the gym, which was always open, or watch a movie on the big screen. Still, “there are a lot of things in life that you really miss,” Montana said. “”Like the freedom to do things when you want.”
And of course they missed their families. As do most soldiers, David used Skype to communicate with his family.
Mandy reports that when his voice would come into the room, little Elcee would search for him. When she got old enough to walk, she would run up to the computer screen then look behind it, trying to find her daddy. He wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there for her first birthday or her second Christmas. After a family party for Mandy’s birthday, in December, she broke down and cried. “I couldn’t bear to go back home without David being there,” she said.
Emily didn’t want anyone talking about Montana; it was too painful to think about where he was and what he was doing. Skype “worked especially horrible” on Christmas day, she remembers, leaving her with a despondent feeling. She and Zane left Blanding for a while; it was easier to cope away from the home that was so full of memories of Montana.
After Montana returned, his son regarded him as he would a stranger and resisted if Montana tried to touch him. “We’ve been trying to associate Montana with ‘fun stuff’,” Emily says, “like playing outside, or riding in the golf cart.” Zane reached for his dad for the first time on April 30. It was a moment to celebrate.
Despite the hardships and sacrifices, “Overall, it was a very good experience,” Montana says. “It certainly gave me an appreciation for our way of life and for our freedoms.”
Ivan is still attached to the 624th. Montana recently reenlisted for another six years; he will be transferring to another unit for better promotion opportunities. David re-upped just last week. He will be joining a UNG Special Forces Group and going to Airborne School.
And their wives? Well, they will do what good military wives have always done: support their men the best they can while they’re home and pray for them when they’re gone.

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