In National Guard, a sense of duty bonds comrades



An Army chaplain and two soldiers arrived at Jim Fike's home in Trafford last week.

Mr. Fike, a retired National Guard recruiter in Pittsburgh and a Vietnam combat veteran, knew instantly why they were there.

His son, Sgt. Robert Fike, 38, had died in Afghanistan along with Sgt. Bryan Hoover, 29, of West Elizabeth. Both Pennsylvania Army National Guardsmen were killed June 11 by a suicide bomber in a bazaar in Zabul Province.

For Jim Fike, the news seemed surreal until he traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware with his wife, his son's 12-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, and her mother. There, in the back of a plane, they saw four transport containers draped with U.S. flags. Robert Fike's body was in one of them. He will be buried Wednesday at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil.

"That brought it all to light for me," Mr. Fike said of seeing those transport containers. "Unfortunately, if there's one thing that the military knows how to do, it's a funeral."

Sgt. Fike and Sgt. Hoover were the 35th and 36th Pennsylvania guard members killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sgt. Hoover will be buried Tuesday at Round Hill Cemetery in Elizabeth Township.

While Sgt. Hoover was the average age of a guardsman, Sgt. Fike was considerably older, like many of his colleagues in the guard. Of the 36 killed, 14 were 35 and older. One was 52.

These middle-aged warriors have families, mortgages and careers, yet they continue to sign up and deploy -- often as volunteers -- knowing they are likely to end up in harm's way in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Why do they do it when they don't have to?

Two reasons, guardsmen say: duty to country and loyalty to fellow soldiers.

"There's a camaraderie in the services," said Mr. Fike. "My son really liked those guys he served with."

He also loved his country and felt duty-bound to serve it. Robert Fike, a 1989 graduate of Penn-Trafford High School, joined the National Guard in 1993. Even though his father was a guard recruiter, the two had never spoken about the younger Fike joining.

"He chose it on his own," said Jim Fike, who joined the guard himself in 1976 after serving in Vietnam because he missed the closeness of Army life.

At home, his son worked as a state prison guard at the State Correctional Institution Albion in Erie County. In the National Guard, he was a military policeman, serving in Panama, Italy and Saudi Arabia before deploying to Iraq in 2007, where he guarded prisoners.

In February, he shipped off for Afghanistan, where he provided protection for provincial reconstruction teams -- civilian-military units whose mission is to rebuild roads, schools and power stations in an effort to get the Afghan government on its feet.

"I'm very proud of him," said his father.

Mr. Fike and his wife, Christine, worried about their son, of course, as all military families do. But he was more concerned about accidents at home, such as the time Robert fell off the roof of his barn in Conneautville, Crawford County, or his love of riding his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle.

"There's always the chance that something will happen [in war]," said Mr. Fike. "But I worried more about him and that Ninja. I really hated the idea of him riding that bike."

As a recruiter who still comes in to work at the armory in Beechview, Jim Fike has come in contact with thousands of guard members. Almost all, he said, have a sense of obligation to the nation. Many come from military families where the tradition of service was instilled from an early age.

The guard does provide such benefits as college money, medical care and insurance, which are incentives to join. But typically, Mr. Fike said, today's guard members are motivated by something larger than financial rewards.

"Most of the time it's the desire to serve," he said. "I never saw anybody really try to back out. The ones that stay are the ones who thoroughly enjoy it. It's kind of a family."

There was a time when the guard had an image problem. During Vietnam, many young men joined the guard to dodge the draft. In later years, its members were sometimes derided as out-of-shape weekend warriors. But 9/11 changed everything. Today's guard members, young and old, know full well what they are getting into and seem to embrace it.

"We have a saying: 'It's not if you will be deployed, it's when,' " said Maj. Cory Angell of the guard public affairs office at Fort Indiantown Gap.

The guard did have some trouble recruiting when the Iraq war turned ugly, but recruitment has picked up, especially among younger enlistees who make up about 90 percent of the force. At the Beechview armory, for example, a board on the wall listing the status of recruits is nearly filled.

What's more, the majority of guard members, about 60 percent nationwide, joined directly, without having prior military service. In Pennsylvania, that number is much higher -- about 85 percent.

Many of those in their 30s or 40s could have retired long ago, but they tend to stay. The reason most cite is loyalty to their unit, the "band-of-brothers" mentality that always holds the military together in time of crisis. Most soldiers don't fight for broad ideals, but for the comrades around them. If their unit is called up, they feel an obligation to go, even if they have to leave their families behind.

"In my experience, guys want to go with their guys," said Lt. Col. Ross Gammon, 46, of Brownsville, Fayette County, the full-time commander of the First Battalion, 110th Infantry Regiment in Mount Pleasant.

"Especially these older guys, they say, 'When that guy goes I want to go with him.' That's what we're seeing with these volunteers. They want to be with their unit."

Lt. Col. Gammon, who joined the guard in 1985, served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 but stayed home when the guard members under him shipped off earlier this year for Afghanistan, where they are assigned to an Army command.

"It's tough to be without them," he said.

On the other hand, he and his wife of 17 years have two children living with them, ages 6 and 14, whom they are in the process of adopting. He didn't have those children when he went to Iraq; deploying to a combat zone now would take on added gravity, as it does for every parent in the guard.

"It would be extremely difficult right now," he said. "We would do it, but it would be difficult."

Sgt. Carl Holtzman, 39, of Scottdale said his family has asked him to retire.

"But I made a commitment when I signed my last contract. I believe in honoring my commitments," he said. "My wife accepts that answer. I don't believe she likes the answer."

An employee of a pump company in Ohio, he and his wife adopted a daughter two years ago who is now 14. Her presence in his life complicates the decision-making.

"It would be tough leaving my family and going over there," he said. "But the National Guard and National Guard soldiers are like my family."

Sgt. Holtzman knows how real the hazards are overseas.

In 2005 he shipped off to Iraq. On Aug. 1 of that year, while he was on a reconnaissance patrol, a roadside bomb blew open the door of his Humvee, shattering his elbow and damaging his right leg. He and the driver, who was also wounded, were sent home. Sgt. Holtzman recovered and returned to duty in January 2007. He has no intention of leaving; in 2006, he re-enlisted.

A former member of the Army Reserves, he's in his 22nd year with the guard. His service has taken him to far-off places such as Germany, where he protected military bases, to nearby Somerset, where after February's massive winter storm he was sent to help clear snow.

Those jobs were satisfying, he said, but his underlying motivation is to fight his nation's enemies.

"Radical Islamic militants pose a threat to my country," he said. "Until that threat is quelled, there are going to be U.S. soldiers going overseas to fight it. And those soldiers are my brothers in arms. We do build bonds with each other."

Some guardsmen also feel that they owe a debt.

Sgt. Steven Fancella, 45, of Worthington, Armstrong County, is among the minority in the guard with previous military experience. After graduating from Freeport Area High School, he served for four years in the Army and then joined the guard in 1987, looking for adventure and the opportunity to travel. He served in England and Germany and, most recently, in Iraq as a platoon sergeant in 2004 and 2005.

Next month, he will start training for a year of duty in Afghanistan, deploying in September and leaving behind his 9-year-old son and his job as a caseworker for Children, Youth and Family Services in Armstrong County.

"The military gave me a sense of direction when I was young," he said. "The Army has been good to me over the years and now it's a sense of giving back."

Beyond that, he said, he has an even simpler motive: "I like being with soldiers."

Across the country, older guard members have been shipping out for years, their eyes fully open to the possibility of not coming back.

Sgt. William Valentin Fernandez was one of them. The 37-year-old from Reading, Pa., was killed Sept. 19, 2005, by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq.

In a letter to his wife, he wrote: "I knew the dangers of my chosen profession. I went to protect you and all Americans who cherish freedom. They sleep peacefully at night because brave men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. Don't ever let anyone degrade you or our decision to let me come here."


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510. First Published June 20, 2010 4:00 AM


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