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Why We Serve: Soldier Chooses Military Service as Way of Life

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2008 – Even as a child playing “G.I. Joe,” Army Staff Sgt. Gary Heffernan always thought one day he would wear the uniform himself.

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Army Staff Sgt. Gary Heffernan is participating in the Defense Department's Why We Serve public outreach program. Defense Department photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“I always kind of knew … I was going to be a soldier,” he said.

Years later, the cavalry scout is bruised but battle-hardened by the life he chose. In Iraq, his up-armored Humvee was bombed 12 times during endless patrols up and down the mean streets of Baghdad. He was banged up, but made it home alive.

His best friend, however, was killed in April by a bomb while on patrol.

Violence, loss and war motivate some to leave the service. But for Heffernan, they’re part of why he serves. He said he wants to spare his family and others the horrors he has seen.

“(I) want to make sure that things like … the death squads who go house to house and take families out of the houses and kill them because they are not the same sect doesn’t happen here in the United States. Because you know what? They’d love it to happen here,” Heffernan said. “You take the fight to them. Don’t let it happen here.”

Heffernan is one of 10 servicemembers selected to be part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public-outreach program. For the next few months, he will travel the country telling his story to community, business and veterans group audiences, and at other gatherings.

Top on his list is letting everyone know that he serves by choice, because, Heffernan said, he loves what he does, who he serves with, and the country he serves.

“If we didn’t have the greatest military in the world, then what would we be doing? We wouldn’t have the country we have today,” he said. “If you don’t have the freedoms we have, then what good is it? That’s why I serve.

“We as soldiers do it voluntarily. No one’s making us go there. There’s no draft. We want to be there. We want to help,” the cavalry scout said.

Heffernan’s military career began when he joined the Massachusetts National Guard in 1995. Serving part time as a fire-support specialist, Heffernan worked full time at a computer retail store and put in extra time with the National Guard for training.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks left Heffernan longing for active duty. He and a handful of others in his unit lobbied their commanders for releases, but the leaders were reluctant to give up unit members because future mission requirements were not yet fully known.

After 18 months of “begging,” Heffernan got his release and signed a contract to go on active duty in June 2003 as a crewman on a Bradley linebacker air-defense-artillery vehicle at Fort Bliss, Texas.

He did a stint in South Korea, but then the Army phased out his job, and he was reclassified as a cavalry scout. For Heffernan, the change was great. He said he loves working as a scout because he enjoys the camaraderie, going to the field, and the training.

“It’s just great. There’s nothing like it in the world,” he said.

In December 2005, Heffernan deployed to Iraq. The combat veteran described his duty there as “rough” -- a daily routine of patrolling and vehicle maintenance, interrupted only by sleeping and eating. “That was our life,” he said.

Patrolling and searching some of the toughest areas in the city at a time when violence was peaking, Heffernan and his crew nabbed two of the most wanted “high value targets” in the 4th Infantry Division’s area of responsibility.

He said he can’t even remember the first time his Humvee was hit by a bomb and sings the praises of up-armored Humvees, giving them credit for saving lives.

The blast that shook him up the most actually hit the Humvee travelling behind his, Heffernan said. The bomb hit, blew the Humvee into the air, spun it around and dropped it in the lane next to him. The blast left a hole more than 3 feet deep and nearly as wide as a Humvee. The engine was blown out, the gunner’s station was gone, and vehicle parts were found 300 meters away from the blast.

But, all three in the crew miraculously lived because of the additional armor on the Humvee, Heffernan said. “When we turned around, I thought for sure all three guys were gone,” Heffernan said. “The smoke cleared, and there they were.”

The crew was severely injured, but Heffernan said it was a blow to the insurgents that their intended targets escaped. “It was a bad day, but it was a good day because our guys were still alive,” he said.

Despite the violence, Heffernan said there was also much peaceful interaction with the locals.

“(The media) make it out to be blood and guts all the time,” Heffernan said. “War is hell. And there is fighting. There are suicide bombings. There are very despicable acts.

“But it wasn’t always that way. There were days we would go on patrol and nothing would happen. We’d interact with the local people; they’d give us bread. We talked to them. The little kids would ask us for candy,” he said. “We’re there to make sure that they have a better life. They in turn want a better life.”

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