Wesley Mottlau, 25, knew since he was a child that he wanted to be in the Army.
One viewing of "Top Gun" and his father's career in the Marines were enough to make him sure.
So he enlisted at age 23, completed basic and advanced training, went to Army Airborne School to learn how to jump out of airplanes and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, N.C.
When he had the opportunity to volunteer to serve in Iraq, he took it.
"It's what we do. We go to Iraq,"
He also took the opportunity to come home, and on Feb. 8, after almost five months in the Middle East, Mottlau came back to Steamboat Springs, where he had attended Steamboat Springs High School and Lowell Whiteman School.
Safe at home, he was flooded with hugs from his mother, Molly Hibbard, took some runs down Mount Werner and told elementary school students his war story. He also received and gave lots of thanks.
He heard "thank you" from people across the community for protecting the country.
He gave thanks back to the community, especially to his mom and her friend, Marci Valicenti, both real estate brokers in town who spearheaded the Support the Troops Fund.
Through the fund established at the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, the women have collected more than $7,500 to give financial support to families of soldiers and to send more than 80 care packages to soldiers on the frontlines. They also have received donations of phone cards, cookies, DVDs and other items to send.
The packages made him and other soldiers feel like "kids at Christmas," Mottlau said. Each time a package arrived, Mottlau and his soldier friends would gather around and watch the opening, loving every minute of it.
They knew from news reports that their country was behind them, Mottlau said, but the packages brought the point home. Being abroad during the holidays, a time when family is the focus, also was more bearable thanks to the gifts from home.
"The boxes were awesome," Mottlau said. "It just made the holidays a heck of a lot easier, getting all this stuff."
One soldier's story
While sitting safe at his mother's Steamboat Springs home on a four-week break before he returns to Fort Bragg, Mottlau said he plans to make the Army his career. One day, he hopes to go to flight school so he can pilot helicopters.
He finished in the top 10 in his basic training class, and his mother saw him in action for the first time when he graduated and was part of a demonstration.
When Mottlau learned people were needed in Iraq, he didn't hesitate to volunteer. The Army, he said, teaches the decisiveness needed for such a move -- the same decisiveness needed in battle.
Less than two weeks into his stay in Mosul, Iraq, Mottlau was traveling in a four-vehicle convoy when Iraqi soldiers detonated a bomb near the first vehicle, badly injuring a soldier.
For a helicopter to land to take that soldier out, Mottlau and the rest of the convoy had to hold back small-arms fire coming from a nearby building.
"As we were walking toward the building shooting, the helicopter came in and threw the guy in," Mottlau said.
It was Mottlau's first time in real fire.
"When stuff like that happens, you just don't think, you react," he said. Adrenaline and training help you make the right decisions, he said.
You also don't tell your mother. Mottlau said that although he stayed in close contact through e-mail and phone with his mother and his father, who lives in Florida, he didn't tell his parents half of what was happening, including the nights he spent in foxholes and bunkers warding off enemy fire.
He did describe learning of Saddam Hussein's capture. That day was filled with rejoicing, handshakes and hugs, he said.
He saw Iraqi "men yelling and screaming in celebration ... women in tears hugging their children ... children throwing candy at us," he wrote back home in an e-mail. "It was by far the biggest party I have ever seen in my life."
"What a day to be a soldier in Iraq," the e-mail read.
Mottlau said his family always supported his decision to enlist in the Army.
He enjoys it for the structure, the chance to serve the country, the pride he feels wearing his uniform and the fact that it keeps him out of trouble.
To the last comment, his mom Hibbard raised her eyebrows, smiled and said, "Then you go to Iraq."
The idea for the Support the Troops Fund began Sept. 11, 2001.
After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings, Valicenti knew she wanted to do anything she could to support the country. As a mother of two, she organized ceremonies at schools so children could better grasp what had happened.
As the situation evolved to attacking Afghanistan and then going after Saddam Hussein, Valicenti said she wanted to stay involved.
She created the fund to give people a way to let troops know they still cared about them,
Through the fund, the two women have collected and bought items ranging from pillows for better sleeping to flea collars for keeping sand fleas out of boots.
They collect and package the goods at the Prudential Steamboat Realty and Steamboat Real Estate offices, then send them off to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who have ties to the area, whether they are Steamboat residents or have a parent, friend or distant cousin living in the area.
Sometimes, Hibbard said, she can't get into her Prudential office because there are so many donations piled up on the floor.
"It just gives me chills when I talk about it," Hibbard said. "What everybody has done."
Some of the most meaningful gifts have come from young givers, such as children who band together to raise $100 or $200 through their school's student councils.
Others have come from individuals, such as the Vietnam veteran who handed Valicenti a $100 bill and said, "Believe me, I know how much this will mean to them. ... No one did this when I was there."
Mottlau said he and his fellow soldiers have loved the support, but know what they're doing is part of their job.
"Nobody wants to go to combat, it's just what we do," he said. "I've got 19 years left. Sorry, mom."
"I'm not sending packages for the next 19 years," Hibbard said with a laugh.
Donations for the Support the Troops fund can be dropped off at Steamboat Real Estate or Prudential Steamboat Realty, or can be made through the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.
-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203
or e-mail email@example.com