Steamboat Springs Since Michelle Jones got the word that her son A.J. Carmack would be coming home for two weeks during the holidays, the apple pies and honey-baked hams have come streaming in.
The return marked the first time Carmack has been home since he left for service in the U.S. Army, just weeks after graduating from Steamboat Springs High School in June.
Carmack, a stand-out four-year letterman and senior captain for the Sailors' wrestling and lacrosse teams, didn't take long to show his ability to lead in the military, quickly being selected as a platoon guide of his infantry training group in Fort Benning, Ga.
Since graduating from basic training in October, Pfc. Carmack has been stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash. His desire to climb the ranks to sergeant has grown as he awaits his first combat action with the rest of his company, the 2nd Infantry Division of the Army's 3rd Brigade.
"It's like practicing for a game over and over but never playing," Carmack said, rubbing the empty Velcro arm of his fatigues, where his combat patch will one day be affixed.
But Carmack has reservations and knows his inevitable deployment to Iraq is no game - especially after seeing the wounded members of his unit return to Fort Lewis. Still, his desire to serve his country is bolstered by a basic drive.
"If I didn't (serve), I'd feel like I'd have missed something I put on my list," Carmack said. "There's something about fighting for something you believe in - even without the war, it would be something I'd do. (Sept. 11) is also one of the things that's in the back of everyone's minds."
Upon Carmack's return to service next week, he'll be heading straight out to the arid Yakima Desert of southeast Washington, to start simulating combat scenarios in heavily-armored, eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles. He's trained in the vehicles as an "11-Charlie" Infantry Mortarman.
Home to stay
While Carmack still has three years of service ahead, other local soldiers can finally celebrate holidays at home without the thought of returning to volatile military action abroad.
After 12 months serving as a specialist in the 1041st Engineer Company of the Wyoming Army National Guard, stationed at a base near the city of Tikrit in northern Iraq, Shea Hurley finally departed the country Sept. 29. The 2004 Steamboat Springs High School grad can now happily worry about the details of trying to start an excavating business, rather than worrying about improvised explosive devices while escorting large supply convoys.
"It's a different world out there - it's a life-changer that makes you look at things differently and (be) thankful for what you have here," Hurley said. "It was kind of surreal for a while when I first got back. But now it's setting in, and I know this is where I'm meant to be."
Spc. Tony Haight, a 2001 Steamboat Springs graduate, will have to savor every bit of his break before he heads back to Fort Bragg, N.C., with the new year. His 15-month deployment to Iraq ended in November, but with just more than a year left in his service in the Army's 1st Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, he doesn't think it will be too long before he gets deployed again.
Haight said he's busy relaxing and spending time with family. He's trying not to think about times at FOB Summerall, near Bayji, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, where his platoon would often patrol routes through Bayji in a convoy of armored Humvees. Haight's brigade has lost eight men in the past year, two from his company.
When asked what advice he would give Carmack, Haight's response was to try and emulate a sponge soaking up information: "Learn as much you can," he said.
Haight also noted his thanks for local support.
Although Christmas may have passed, Johnny B Good's Diner, at 738 Lincoln Ave., continues to work with Steamboat Springs High School's Operation Smile program, which accepts donations - and individual soldier addresses - for care packages to troops abroad.
Haight noted tuna fish, beef jerky and magazines in particular.
"Books, DVDs, jerky, toiletries, flea collars for their ankles - we'll take it, package it and send it to them," said Johnny B's owner Mike Diemer. "Anything to let them know they're not just out there swinging in the wind."