Steamboat Springs Two kids who have been friends since sixth grade reunited during the Christmas holiday this year, but much had changed. In just one year - from when the pair graduated with Steamboat Springs High School's Class of 2008 - the boys had turned into men, dressed in the greens of the Army and Marines.
Alex Palaniuk and Joe Nerney were the only two members of their high school class who chose to serve in the military, and after a half-year of basic training, they reconnected this week during their first trips home before more training and eventual deployment.
During their leave, the two will celebrate belated 18th birthdays - they turned 18 while enlisted - and catch up with friends before returning to service.
Palaniuk, an E-2 Army private, completed basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., before training to become a medic at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
After two weeks at home, his first deployment will be in New York, where he will be the sole medic assigned to a platoon of soldiers. Palaniuk said he became a medic because of the future career opportunities it could lead to.
"I thought it would help when I get out of the Army," he said
He already has received EMT training and hopes to complete paramedic training after he leaves the Army.
Nerney chose the Marines, where he is serving as a private. He completed training in San Diego and will spend 10 days on vacation before assisting a local recruiter for another month. During that time, he will live with his parents and travel with a senior recruiter across the Western Slope.
Nerney graduated from basic training in an honor platoon Dec. 19. His parents visited San Diego for the occasion and ran into the platoon as they were lined up outside a hotel before the ceremony. Nerney said he had to stay focused, eyes forward, even though he hadn't seen his parents in months. It wasn't until after the ceremony that he was able to break ranks and greet them.
A rite of passage
Military discipline is something Nerney and Palaniuk said has shaped their experiences and changed their personalities.
"They tell us when to eat, when to wake up, when to sleep," Palaniuk said. "I matured a lot more since I left."
The friends each were awoken every morning at 4 a.m. and were asleep by 9 p.m. after a day of training. That schedule is something that has stayed with them, even on vacation, Nerney said.
"I'm still not even used to waking up any time after 4 (a.m.)," he said. "But I can't sleep at night, because I have so much energy."
Nerney has lost 30 pounds since he joined the service.
Palaniuk's sister, 19-year-old Angela Palaniuk, said she saw a change in her brother and Nerney.
"They talk differently, with more complete sentences and more confidence in their voices," she said.
Speaking about her brother, she said he "sits up a lot straighter. He's more confident and respects everyone a lot more."
Nerney's father, Kevin Nerney, said he can see how his son's introduction to the Marines has reiterated many of his son's strengths.
"Just to see how the military life has reinforced all the upbringing I tried to instill in him - respect and hard work," he said. "He's no longer a kid; he's a young man."
Time at home
Joe Nerney and Alex Palaniuk said they intend to spend time at home catching up with friends from high school, snowboarding and celebrating the holidays with their families.
They said they are the only enlistees from their class at Steamboat Springs High School, but that suits them just fine.
"I just really couldn't see myself going to college," Alex Palaniuk said. "This is a better option for me. Instead of just sitting there learning about something in class, you learn about something and then go do it."
One of the most memorable parts of his training was a combat simulation that required medics to run into a room flashing with strobe lights to find and assess "victims." The recruits were splashed with fake blood as rock music played loudly, testing their ability to concentrate in a stressful situation.
"You get rolling with everything, and it's a lot of fun going through all the steps," Alex Palaniuk said.
Joe Nerney's training involved "a lot of pull-ups and sit-ups," he said. After completing his time with a local recruiter, he will be stationed in Florida for intelligence and signal training. Although he said he's not sure what his eventual assignment will be, the track he is on will lead to a role as a field intelligence officer.
Although the soldiers soon will leave Steamboat, the good news for their parents is that after basic training, back-and-forth communication should be easier. During the recruit phase, no cell phones or electronics are allowed, but now that graduation has passed, they will be able to keep in better touch with their families.
"That's what was hard - not being able to talk to him while he was in training," said Diane Anderson, Alex Palaniuk's mother. "We missed him."
Anderson said she also keeps up on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing there's a possibility her son will be deployed to one of them.
"I think it's pretty inevitable, especially with his job field," she said. "I'm proud of him to go help everybody, absolutely. I can't be nervous. I could be nervous about my daughter going to college, but you can't live for that."