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Fresh perspectives

War in Afghanistan: Soldiers from the Monadnock region cross cultural divide to do their part

  • Josh Moreen, center, and his infantry replicate an insurgent force to help train a unit for the operational environment they will be deploying to, at the Hohenfels Training Area, in Hohenfels, Germany.
  • Zachary Johannesson, a Peterborough native, patrols while deployed to Afghanistan.
  • Sgt. Josh Moreen, while he was still Private First Class Moreen, pulls security on a vehicle checkpoint in the Arghandab River Valley, Afghanistan, in 2011
  • Josh Moreen, far left, takes a picture with his squad on top of a mountain during a patrol in the Arghandab River Valley in Afghanistan in 2011.
  • Zachary Johannesson, a Peterborough native, during his first deployment to Afghanistan as a Marine. Johannesson is currently discharged and attending college.
  • Zachary Johannesson, a Peterborough native, patrols while deployed to Afghanistan.
  • Zachary Johannesson, a Peterborough native, patrols at dusk while deployed to Afghanistan.

Veterans Day is a day given to the reflection of the sacrifices made by those men and women who have decided to give service to their country by joining any number of military branches. We remember those who have lost their lives, those who have come home, and those who are still in the service, making their living by risking their lives.

The military can create strong bonds, foster a sense of responsibility, and make its members mature as people, said three young veterans with ties to the Monadnock area who participated in one of the nation’s most recent conflicts in Afghanistan. But it can also put strain on the relationships of those left behind, and the tighter the bond, the tougher it can be when a soldier has to move to a new post. Not to mention just the average stress of being a soldier.

But, said the three men, ultimately, the bad outweighs the good. Opening a school for Afghanistan children, creating lifelong friendships and the satisfaction of knowing that your efforts made a difference mean that for these three, they would do it all again.

Josh Moreen

Army Sgt. Josh Moreen, 26, of Hancock had always been drawn to the military, he said in a phone interview from his current station in Germany. Back in 2009, he was in a position where he wanted to try something different, and the military seemed like the best option. He’d been attending a technical community college in Laconia, but with a lackluster job market, he didn’t see many opportunities. So he signed up for a four-year tour in the Army, and was eventually deployed to Afghanistan.

“We got there at the beginning of August [2010],” Moreen recalled. “It was really hot. That was a big thing. I’ve never been anything close to that hot. We were pretty much drinking water non-stop. When we landed, we flew by helicopter to our outpost at night. I remember waking up and walking outside. The mountains were huge, and everything’s made out of mud. I’d never seen anything like that. It’s just a culture shock. It’s a whole different country, and for me, it was the first time leaving the country.”

Moreen was a machine gunner throughout his tour, he said. He spent most of his time patrolling an area which hadn’t had much American presence, and his mission was to train local Afghan police to take over their own security.

“All in all, we were just keeping our presence out there, so the people could feel safe and go about their normal life,” he said. “I can’t say we completely pushed the Taliban out, but our presence was enough to make a difference. You see these people living in fear, and you step in and let them go about their daily life with some security, and it’s a good feeling to be able to do that.”

One of his proudest moments, he noted, was being able to open a school that the Taliban had closed.

“That was pretty neat. Seeing the kids able to get education again was awesome,” he said. Another high point, said Moreen, was the close relationships that he formed with his brothers-in-arms. But that close relationship is something of a double-edged sword. After bonding with his infantry group during his four-year tour, Moreen found himself having to start over with a new group when he signed up for another round.

At the end of that tour, Moreen was offered a chance to be stationed in Germany, and he signed up for another three years. Now, he leads an infantry squad in training missions for both American soldiers and foreign allies. His team is the designated opposing forces unit, explained Moreen, which basically means they get to play the bad guys for those training units getting ready to deploy. They mimic the tactics of insurgents and contemporary armies, or even do things like start mock riots for the forces to quell.

Moreen said that although he feels the military definitely has changed him for the better, he’s not ready to call himself a career military man. When his current tour ends, he plans to return to civilian life, and to New Hampshire, he said. Probably, he said, he will go back to college. Once his military experience is behind him, he feels he’ll be ready to face the civilian job market, he said.

“The military sets you up for any job that you could want to do in the civilian sector,” he noted.

Jared Johannesson

In 2006, with the memory of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, still fresh in his mind, ConVal graduate Jared Johannesson, now 26, of Peterborough decided to put off college and enlist in the Navy.

He always knew he would be enlisting in the military, said Johannesson in a phone interview from Norfolk, Va., where he is currently stationed. It came down to the Navy, he said, mostly out of luck: The Navy recruiter was the first to approach him. But what may have happened by chance has turned into nearly a decade of service for Johannesson, who will be ending his military career at the end of this tour, in 2015. During this time, he said, he spent nine months deployed in the Persian Gulf, supporting ground troops by launching bombs at enemy targets, as well as providing a landing and takeoff strip for support planes.

Having gone into the military with a strong purpose in mind, being on-ship and unable to see the effect his contributions were having was hard at first, recalled Johannesson. “It’s different being in the Navy,” he said. “Where you’re on the ground, you can see the difference you’re making. In the Navy, you’re in the background. At first I didn’t think I was doing much.” However, that perspective has changed over the course of his tour, he noted. “When you look at the big picture, everyone supports everyone. In the long run, you’re still doing your job and doing your part. As small of a part as it may have been, I’m glad I was able to do something.”

Now, said Johannesson, he spends months at a time out to sea, mostly involved in training day-to-day for potential emergencies. He can be out at sea for between seven and eight months of the year. While out there, and in the moment, he falls into the rhythm of the job, he said, but the amount of time spent away from his family did take its toll. He was married for four years, and is now separated, he said.

“You grow apart, because you’re not there for so much of the time. It’s something that everyone has to deal with,” he said. He also misses out on a lot of time with his 2-year-old daughter, he added. “I’ve missed a lot of firsts,” he said. “It’s really difficult to raise a family and be a family, while in the military. You’re not able to be with them as much. You miss your family, but you’re so busy doing missions, and you can’t worry about what’s going on back at home. You have to focus on what’s going on where you’re at, and I can do that, for the most part.”

While the military can put a strain on relationships with those left at home, it can also forge some strong bonds in the field. “The friends you make in the military are the friends you’ll have for the rest of your life. They’re different than the friend you have in high school. You have to rely on them to have your back and support you no matter what,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about the military.”

His military experience has also done a lot for him personally, he said. When he first entered the military, he thought he would be earning money for college when he got out. Now, he said, he knows that college is not the route for him. He now plans to become a professional firefighter after completing his tours, and has already acquired his Firefighting I and II and Emergency Medical Technician certifications, as well as volunteering as a firefighter in Hampton, Va., when he’s not out at sea. He said he will likely stay down South after his tour ends since that’s where his daughter is, and because there are more professional opportunities for firefighters in the area than in New Hampshire.

“I’m looking forward to having a set schedule and getting to spend more time with my daughter,” he said of the end of his tour. “It’s definitely going to be an adjustment.”

Zachary Johannesson

Jared Johannesson wasn’t the only member of his family to join the military right out of school. Zachary Johannesson, 22, Jared’s brother and also a Peterborough native, was just 17 when he joined the Marines in 2008.

“The reason I joined was because I didn’t think it was right for me to be sitting this one out, when people were over there, fighting and dying, while I was willing and able to do it,” said Johannesson of his enlisting. Unlike his brother, he was attracted to the Marines, just like his grandfather. “I just felt like they were more of a brotherhood, and more of a tight-knit group than the other branches,” he explained.

That was something that definitely proved to be true for him, explained Johannesson. “You spend hour and hours with the people that you’re with, both deployed and stateside. You get to know pretty much everything about those people.”

Those friendships were what made some of the worst moments of his deployments to Afghanistan and Haiti bearable, said Johannesson. In Afghanistan, particularly, troops arrived after about a year after Taliban had essentially taken over the city where they were stationed. At that point, the Marines were aiding with securing the borders, and training local police and Army to leave them in a good position to take over their own security. It was a high-stress situation, he said.

“The biggest thing was making sure all my guys were taken care of, and making sure that everyone knew what to do,” said Johannesson. “Just the natural stress of going out there you could step on an IED or get shot at, or going on patrol and not knowing that everyone was coming back. For the most part you can repress that, and go out and do it and come back and be happy. The not knowing is the worst thing.

“Ironically, some of the best and worst experiences I had were hand in hand,” said Johannesson. “There were days, sometimes a week straight, where we were basically sitting in a hole in the desert. But being with these guys made it endurable. It’s 100 degrees outside, and we’d still manage to find a way to have fun and joke around. The experience of that, knowing no matter what the circumstances are, that you can make the best of it was a life experience that can’t be replaced.” Even during the most trying times, that camaraderie shone through, he said.

“I remember one instance, we were caught in an ambush. Everyone was shooting and it was really intense. But after the gunfire slowed down and essentially stopped, I looked at the guy next to me and in the next minute, we were laughing and joking about it, and being light-hearted,” Johannesson recalled. “I think being able to laugh and joke takes some of the realism out of the situation, and helps to keep you distracted.”

He also spent a second deployment giving aid to Haiti, following a devastating earthquake in 2010. Mostly, it was providing food such as rice to the survivors, and providing protection against pervasive gang activity.

By May of 2012, troops were being pulled from their deployments, and Johannesson said he felt he’d done what he’d gone in to do. He was also feeling ready to move on to the next stage of his life: Continuing the education he put on hold for the military.

“When I was 17, I was not ready for college,” said Johannesson. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do long-term. I was a good student, but I was going through the motions.” Now, a year and a half after leaving the military, Johannesson is attending Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, N.C., with plans to transfer to the University of North Carolina to get a degree in pre-medicine, with hopes to become a physician’s assistant. He started his basic medical training while in the Marines, he said, and found it was something that was interesting to him.

“I think I still would have gone to college had I not gone into the military first, but I don’t know that I would have graduated,” said Johannesson. “At the very least, I would have changed my major several different times. I wouldn’t have the direction that I do now.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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