Many local military people are still away from their families and jobs as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Noble Eagle continue.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Ready to serve, eager to make a difference. Honored to wear the uniform, proud to be American.
Local men and women -- members of regular or reserve military units -- took their pride and determination, skills and patriotism throughout the country and around the world to fight America's war on terrorism.
Almost literally before the dust settled from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, area military personnel began deploying to duty stations as near as Vienna and Columbus, and as far away as Florida and Utah, Germany, Qatar, Bahrain and Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom or its stateside equivalent, Operation Noble Eagle.
Nearly a year later, when most Americans have settled back into their regular routines, many in the military are still away from their families -- as well as their civilian jobs if they are reservists -- as the war continues.
Area military reservists and regulars and their families talked about service since Sept. 11, and what it is like to leave family and friends behind. Most say they are exactly where they trained to be and want to be, despite sometimes great personal risk.
Dr. Robert J. Marx, a major in the Army Reserve Medical Corps, left the air-conditioned comfort of his Boardman office and is living in a tent without electricity or running water and doing surgery in a generator-powered operating room in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan.
"He's been in some scary situations before, but nothing like this. And he sounds like he's braver than he realized," said his wife, Becky, who manages his practice.
Brothers and career military pilots, Army Lt. Col. Emmett Shaffer and Air Force Lt. Col. Donald Shaffer, formerly of Brookfield, have flown missions to and within Afghanistan. Emmett is a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, and Donald flies transport planes.
"I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful children that I can't say enough about. I ask far too much of them ... yet they keep supporting me and my career," Emmett said.
The cost to soldiers also can be high in missed family moments.
"Last fall, my son threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns in a varsity football game, while my daughter went on to be the state gymnastics balance beam champion in Kentucky ... while I was deployed," Emmett said.
Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Renee Noel, with the 910th Airlift Wing, was activated in November 2001 and expects to be on active status for another year.
She put her job with the Postal Service on hold and left family and friends to help provide security at the Youngstown Air Force Reserve Station in Vienna and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
"I am very proud to do my part in helping out this country in any way I am asked. By going wherever the military sends me, I have a sense of pride that I am making a difference for our country and keeping my family, friends and all other Americans out of harm's way," said Noel, of Niles.
Air Force Reserve Chief Master Sgt. Troy K. Rhoades of Canfield spent three months at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a small country off the Persian Gulf.
"I had trained for the inevitable, and when it happened, I wanted to be involved. I was ready and glad to be called. I wanted to help," said Rhoades, security forces manager at the 910th.
However, Rhoades believes the bigger sacrifice is made by those back home, worrying and perhaps home alone at night.
"We have the camaraderie and someone to talk to about the day. I'm very blessed to have a wife and family that understands," he said.
"At first I was shocked and selfishly wanted him to be home in a safer environment," said Rhoades' wife, Christine, physician network development manager at Humility of Mary Health Partners.
"But I realized this was something he deeply believed in and that he was doing something brave and honorable, not only for myself and my family, but for all Americans. When I thought about the lives that were lost on Sept. 11, three months was a small sacrifice for me to make. I was truly proud of him and was extremely fortunate in that I have family, friends and co-workers here in town who were so kind and supportive," Christine said.
"The hardest part of deploying is leaving my wife and children. Deploying to do your job isn't hard; it is what you are leaving behind," said Air Force Reserve 2nd Lt. Paul Hoerig with the 910th.
"My family has been absolutely great. They have supported me 100 percent. My wife has grown used to me being away from home for extended periods of time for training; this was just another time away from home. Somehow she keeps everything going at home and takes care of two children while working 30 hours a week. How she does it, I don't know," he said.
Hoerig was activated in November 2001 and served at Youngstown Air Reserve Station as security forces deputy commander and then was deployed to a classified forward operating base where he was its security forces commander.
Naval Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Myers of Austintown said he has a "great deal of pride in knowing what I'm doing today will make the world a better place tomorrow ... a better place for our children."
Myers, an information system technician, has been in Bahrain since December 2001, assigned to the Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central command Detachment 109.
Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. John Falfas of Warren has been deployed twice since Sept. 11, for a total of 7 1/2 months, once to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and then to Ramstein Air Base in Germany in support of transport and distinguished visitor planes such as the C-130, C-17 and others.
Falfas said Sept. 11 did not greatly change his outlook as a reservist.
"I have always felt that the jobs I do and have done are very important to our country ... and I have always been ready to defend our country and our people at a moment's notice," he said.
Like many of the others, Major John Spagnola, an operations officer with the Army National Guard, said the most satisfying thing about his deployment after Sept. 11 was "serving and defending my country ... and making a major contribution."
Spagnola was activated Sept. 23, 2001, and first placed in charge of military police security at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus, then was named operations officer for a new task force that protected Ohio's six largest commercial airports, including Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna.
Spagnola said Sept. 11 and participating in Operation Noble Eagle has made him "remember the past while constantly planning for the future."
Jumping in to help
Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Charles Cook didn't wait to be activated by the military after Sept. 11.
When Cook, an aircraft mechanic at the 910th and an operating engineer out of Local 66, watched the World Trade Center buildings come down and saw that mass of twisted steel and rubble, he said: "That's what I know how to do."
He got in his car and drove to New York City. As an operating engineer, he had been around building demolition, and realized he could be of help.
It wasn't to be that easy. At first, the New York police wouldn't let him onto the site. He went back to his car and got his hard-hat and tools and came back, and they passed him through.
The first night he and some other workers stayed in a nearby vacated building, and then he hooked up with some operating engineers from the Manhattan local, and a couple of them from New Jersey put him up. He said he operated some equipment but mostly he helped erect the huge cranes that were used to clear the rubble.
Five days later, Cook was called back to the 910th and deployed to an undisclosed area in Utah.
People are in the reserves for a lot of different reasons: Some because of patriotism, some for education or a secondary job, Rhoades said.
"But when it was time to do our duty, we stepped up. As a whole, we were very proud to serve. It was very satisfying to actually be a part of Operation Enduring Freedom, making sure operations were running safely, the camaraderie, the ability to work with fellow Americans around the world that had come together as one for one purpose."
In the same vein, Noel said that because of her call-up experience, she is "more aware of how important all of our roles are and how we affect one another in accomplishing our jobs, by relying on one another and helping each other out."
Finally, a word of praise from Emmett Shaffer, the 20-year veteran.
"I have been impressed with the caliber of young soldiers joining the armed forces. I have read all the articles on Generation X and how they only know how to play Nintendo and surf the Internet."
"I submit to you that these young men and women have a lot of heart and have answered the call. My unit, unfortunately, buried nine of these fine young soldiers -- each who died supporting Operation Enduring Freedom."