Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles that will run until Labor Day in advance of the return to Sidney of the Vietnam Memorial replica wall and a Field of Valor featuring American flags in Custenborder Park. Both exhibits are by the Shelby County Historical Society. Flags for the Field of Valor can be purchased by calling 498-1653. The project commemorates 2015 as the anniversary of the beginning or end of several U.S. armed conflicts. This series will include stories about most of America’s wars. Today, a veteran shares his memories of Afghanistan.
SIDNEY — James Stewart, 29, of Sidney, has been home from Afghanistan for almost three years, but he can’t yet talk about much of what he did there.
The former Marine Corps sergeant was a radio operator and his security clearance prevents his revealing what he was involved in from August 2011 to August 2012.
Stewart graduated from Sidney High School in 2004, spent four years at Norcold, coached football for Sidney Middle School and completed an Associate of Arts at Edison Community College in 2009, the same year he joined the Marines.
After boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina, and training at Camp Geiger in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and Camp Pendleton, California, with the 5th Marines, he was sent to Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
“When we got off the plane, I remember how hot it was,” he said recently. “It was like it sucked the life out of you. (Helmand Province) is a barren desert. I spent a year and a half at least in 29 Palms, California, the Mojave desert. It’s a little bit hotter in Afghanistan. Temperatures get up to the 130s and 140s there.”
Not only does it get hot. It also gets cold. Freezing cold. And with nothing to stop the wind, Stewart said, it felt even colder.
“It’s a place of extreme climates,” he noted.
As a radio operator, he was responsible for communication between the Marines on the ground and decision-makers at command posts. He also handled communications between companies of troops.
Stewart could not discuss what took place on missions, during battles. But a typical non-mission day was uneventful.
“You’re basically at camp,” he said. “You get up at 6 (a.m.). You do your basic work: rifle gets cleaned, radio gets taken care of, you make sure communication lines are open. It’s very boring when you’re not going out and you’re not leaving the wire (your camp). It’s like a prison without walls. You’re trying to entertain each other.”
To overcome the boredom, the Marines spent time in the gym.
“We worked out a lot — two to three times a day,” Stewart said.
When they were called out for missions, they didn’t know where they were headed or for how long they’d be gone.
“It’s like living the unknown every day on a grand scale. There were operations that were planned. A mission could be a battle. Or you could be going to a town, checking for poppy fields (which were then burned to help quell the opium trade),” Stewart said.
The stateside training stood him in good stead.
“I was surprised by how well I could react when things would happen. The training kicked in. You always worry about that. You’re confident, but you wonder, ‘How will I really react when things happen?’” he said. “I learned that I’m strong. I’m a survivor.”
He also appreciated the St. Michael’s medal he wore. Michael is the patron saint of soldiers.
“My mom wanted to give me a St. Michael’s necklace (before I left), but she couldn’t find one. I was there two days and I found one on the ground,” Stewart said. His parents are Julie and Jim Stewart, of Maplewood.
There was not a lot of interaction with Afghan people, but the Marines would share candy from their MREs (military meals) with area children.
“We tried to let them know that we weren’t there to ruin their lives. We tried to teach them that we were the good guy,” he said.
Stewart did not travel far during his time in Western Asia. He spent his vacation time at home in the States with his wife, Andrea, and their children, Ava, then 3, and Maddyn, who was born while he was gone and was 10 weeks old when he met her for the first time. Before he came back permanently, he left the Afghan desert for two weeks in a holding station in Turkistan, Kazakhstan.
“I hadn’t seen green in so long. It was a great feeling to see green grass,” he said. It was also great to be back home. Stewart admitted to missing his family.
“The hardest thing for me was managing family and my life over there,” he said. “We were trained for places like Afghanistan, but we’re not really trained for how to deal with both. I (missed) home, (missed) my wife and kids. We had phones. We had access to Skype. I’m lucky enough to serve in a time when we had Skype.”
Stewart is now employed by Minster Machine as a tool builder. He enjoys bow hunting for deer and fishing. He’s an avid fan of the Bills, the Reds, all OSU teams, the Knicks and the Sabres, but his favorite thing to do is spend time with Andrea and his girls, who now number three. Raegan was born 18 months ago.
Stewart was discharged in 2013. He has no regrets about being a Marine.
“I loved my time. I wanted to do the best. I wanted to do the hardest thing. I wish I would have joined out of high school. Then I would have been a lifer,” he said.