A Soldier’s Story

By Carolyn Cole
Published on February 21, 2008

Canadian County resident John Carter dreams of paying off his mortgage, opening a small repair shop and hunting with his 12-year-old daughter, Nicole.

Then aircraft roars in, rolling across Forward Operating Base Warhorse’s landing strip, yards from his shack. Carter, a sergeant first class in the Army, said he’d rather wake to aircraft taking soldiers on leave or home under the cover of night than artillery fire, shot by guards from the nearby west gate into the darkness between the base and nearby Baqubah in east central Iraq.

Giving up on sleep, he walks to the gym and runs on a treadmill for an hour, while the 30 soldiers in his armament repair unit try to get a few more minutes of shut-eye. With each step Carter said it takes him a moment closer to home, his family and financial freedom.

“I have a lot of things planned,” he said. “That is how I keep my mind away from where I am and what I’m doing.”

Carter enlisted in the Army months after graduating from Mustang High School. With eight years in the Army Reserve and 18 years of active duty, the 45-year-old soldier is two years away from qualifying for retirement.

Carter spent all of that time stateside, except four months in 1994 in Kuwait and Iraq. He volunteered for this deployment last year, he said, with hopes the extra money would allow his family to pay off their home before he retires. At first Carter expected to be away a year, but when his unit arrived in Iraq last April, their tour was extended to 15 months.

Instead of dwelling on time away from his wife, Treva, and daughter, Nicole, Carter said he counts it as a few more months toward his goal of financial freedom. At the earliest, he said he expects to return home in June or July.

“I am sacrificing a year and three months of my life for the future,” he said.

His family’s future is never far from his mind, Carter said, even as he carries a rifle with him everywhere he goes. At first the sergeant’s armament repair shop was stationed in Taji, but in November his entire brigade was moved to Baqubah because fighting was heavier in the area.

“So far, so good,” he said. “I still have all of my fingers, toes and a sense of humor.”

Baqubah, just east of Baghdad, is far from quiet. Just in the past month, suicide bombers killed Iraqi residents outside a school and a mosque. Recently four children moving sheep died near the town in a roadside bomb explosion, and earlier in the year a dozen civilian bodies were found in a mass grave nearby.

He said life at FOB Warhorse was much calmer until a few weeks ago when four rockets hit the base, one only a few hundred yards from the mess hall where Carter was eating with another soldier.

“It was so strong when it hit, I thought it was right outside the tent,” he said.

The rockets struck a soldier housing unit and a truck yard, injuring several soldiers. Carter said so far his unit has been lucky, and none of his men have been seriously injured, although every one of them has ridden in a vehicle when it struck an improvised exploding device while traveling in convoys.

“We have had close calls,” he said.

One of those days, Carter said mortars were fired near a bus his crew was riding in while they were still stationed at Taji. The closest mortar fell 50 feet away.

“We stopped because you could tell from the first two mortars they were coming at us,” he said. “The bus driver vanished. We ran to the bunker.”
Carter said after the first two mortars were fired, he wasn’t too worried because insurgents tend to shoot three rounds and leave to take another position.

“That was as close as I’ve come to being hurt,” he said. “We were lucky that the blast of the mortar went the other way.”

To have not taken a serious hit given that his soldiers head out of base almost daily to repair weapon systems scattered across the area is remarkable, Carter said. About 20 of his soldiers at any time are off base as a combat repair team, keeping weapons functioning at the front lines.
Eleven other soldiers are assigned to the FOB’s armament repair shop, but also travel frequently with convoys to repair and maintain large artillery, such as the Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer repair planned for Monday, which takes them through dangerous territory.

Every army weapon in the area will pass through Carter’s unit at one time or another, including tank and Striker combat vehicle pieces and small arms weapons. His crew replaces worn parts and makes sure when a soldier is relying on his weapon, it will work.

“If they are not checked out and the weapons don’t work, all you are carrying around is a baseball bat, really,” he said.

Carter’s crew works long days, but he said he tries to give each soldier one day off per week. But to get that day off, he said, they have to earn it — running a minimum of 10 miles and recording 250 push-ups and 250 sit-ups each week.

Carter said his physical fitness goal was unusual among units, but it serves two purposes — keeping his soldiers in shape and from dwelling on their homesickness.

The majority of his soldiers are in their early 20s and facing the same pressures and worries, he said, adding he knows they all need to be able to blow off steam. Carter said they treat each other like brothers, “trash-talking,” and when the pressure is on, they pull together like a family.

“They bug me about being an old man,” he said. “They jab about what it was like riding a horse in my day, using catapults ... I have one of the better sections,” he said. “The atmosphere of my shop is weird — I’m not so strict the way I do things that it keeps people from speaking their minds.”

While his unit has bonded, Carter said he’s concerned at how quickly young soldiers show trust to Iraqis on the base. Before the recent attack, he said he saw young soldiers “shoulder tap hugging” Iraqis working at the base. While Carter said he believes most of the local workers are just trying to provide for their families, there are a few that raise concerns.

After the attack, he said Army personnel learned one of their interpreters had talked on a cell phone with one of the men who shot the rockets. Since then, he said the camp is on a higher alert. Likewise, tension rose.

“I know I didn’t sleep that night,” he said. “I got up at 4 a.m., ran for an hour and went to work.”
As one of the highest ranked noncommissioned officers, Carter and other top leaders are pushing to update the base’s “death mural,” listing more soldiers who have died from FOB Warhorse since 2003. So far he said there are more than 50 names on the wall.

“Too many of our soldiers are getting too relaxed about how they do things,” he said. “They are forgetting how serious this is.”

His soldiers need to be on guard to do their jobs and then get home to their families, Carter said. While technology has made the weaponry they repair more complicated, it has also made almost daily contact with home possible. Carter said he’s able to talk to his wife and daughter at least once each week and exchanges e-mails with family and friends more frequently.

Since leaving home Carter has missed his 18th wedding anniversary, daughter, Nicole’s 12th birthday and three family weddings. However, the hardest milestone for him to miss was Nicole’s first deer, which she shot in October. Carter had taught her to shoot and took the hunting registration class with her, but it was Nicole’s grandfather and uncle who got to carry her first deer home.

“It was a big deal to me because that was something me and her had,” he said.

Every night since her husband deployed, Treva Carter said their daughter has slept with Caboose, a teddy bear with a tape of his voice recorded on it. She said they have both kept busy during the deployment, and when she’s needed help, their families have come through for them.

“I don’t see how all of these single parents make it,” she said.

Whenever she gets too lonely, Treva said she gets an iron-cast piggy bank figurine in the mail — a collector’s item her husband bought in an Internet auction and had shipped home.

The collection has grown to more than 100 banks — a passion that has grown from a favor he did years ago for a friend, who was looking for a cast iron rooster bank the man had as a child. Carter found the bank on the Internet and gave it to his friend as a birthday present, but in the hunt for the rare item, he said he was hooked.

When he retires, Carter said he intends to display his banks in his own machine shop, opened using the skills he first learned in the Army.

“I hate being away from the family, but I know if I wasn’t here doing this now, I’m ensuring when I get out of the military, I can spend the rest of my life with my family,” he said. “I will not spend my later years of life working.”


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