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Homecoming

Portrait of Army Sgt. Brent Wingfield
Portrait of Army Sgt. Brent Wingfield

On his last day in Afghanistan, Army Sergeant Brent Wingfield debates whether he should stay in or get out

Homecoming
Homecoming

JULIA EVANS, HOST: From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the show featuring stories from the lives of American veterans told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Julia Evans. It was the last day, the last mission of Brent Wingfield’s tour in Afghanistan. He left his decision down to the wire. Would he stay in, or get out? BRENT WINGFLELD: That bond- it’s enough. It was enough to keep doing it. JULIA EVANS, HOST: He knew from his time in Iraq that there was no such thing as a perfect tour, a perfect homecoming, but this time in Afghanistan, he was lucky. He was almost there. Whether that meant he should quit, or re-up, he couldn't decide. But I’ll let Brent tell you the rest. BRENT: Hi. My name is Brent Wingfield, and my story is called Homecoming. As I trudged through Afghanistan’s lush Mizan River Valley on what would be my final combat patrol, I stopped for a second to catch my breath before climbing an earthen embankment. I had to keep my guys out of the river bed where we were easy targets, and off the roads where the locals liked to bury bombs. They didn’t usually like placing the IEDs in or around their homes, so to hell with the roads, I thought. We took the safest route: through their fields and farms. None of us wanted to be the latest casualty in a forgotten war, and no one was trying to be a hero, especially on our last mission. I took a breath, and looked at the fields ahead. An acre of red poppies danced playfully in the breeze and the craggy mountains cast a looming shadow over some mud-walled homes ahead. I marveled as the Afghan cliffs slowly swallowed the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. “It’d be kinda pretty if it weren’t for all those crappy houses.” The lush valley was a light show of colors. It was littered with crude, mud-walled homes, dirt roads and the scars of centuries of war. I was captivated, and sick of it. I missed my home, my wife, and my pug, Roxy. I missed having a beer after work. My gut wrenched over the decision I knew that I had to make, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to hang up my boots and say goodbye to life in the infantry. After a seven-year-love-hate relationship with the Army, most of which was spent overseas, I realized that I loved seeing the world, the camaraderie and the experience of serving, but I had long-since grown weary of the caveats. I was at the end of my enlistment and had to choose: re-up or get out. I wanted to stay in but I was tired. I was tired of saying goodbye to my wife, tired of keeping my family at a distance, and I was tired of keeping a guilty tab on my growing list of dead friends. I longed for a “normal” life, and even though I didn’t have any idea what the hell that even meant. I just knew that it had to be better than all this. But, I loved what I did. Training soldiers and leading them through combat- it was the most rewarding experience of my life. I loved the guys with whom I served like family, and being a grunt- it was all I had known since I was nineteen. I wondered if I should just accept the fact that this- this was my life. I watched my soldiers following in formation. It had taken countless hours of training and a year at war to turn what was once a soup sandwich of misfits and teenagers into an effective fighting force. I smiled proudly and kept walking. As I stepped, I twisted my ankle and slipped. Gravity jerked my body one way, and sent the 90lbs of gear I was wearing violently in the opposite direction. I sailed to the ground like a bag of bricks. “You alright?” The platoon sergeant half giggled through my radio. “This’ll buff out,” I answered, still spitting out pieces of Afghanistan. Miss this? Heh. Let me count the ways. I dusted myself off and kept moving. I reached the edge of the scarlet morphine farm and climbed a wall to the next one. It was filled with poppies planted in neat rows, and as I climbed, my mind wandered back to scaling walls while fighting house-to-house in Southern Baghdad years back. It wasn’t anything like this. Back then, we would quickly climb crude walls, rush into half-ruined homes, and race to the rooftop. Entire neighborhoods would erupt into gunfire and my heart would race as I clutched my rifle’s grip, my eyes and sights racing frantically through the haze of incoming lead and the confusion of trying to tell who was trying to kill us and who was trying to just not get shot. I thought of the adrenaline rush as bullets sang just overhead. That carnivorous dread that gnawed at our sanity, and how we fought through it arrogantly. I thought of the dozen guys that didn’t make it home and the couple dozen more who were broken, blown up or shot. I remembered how the rest of us were left to carry on and fight in their absence and I remembered how we tried to pick up the pieces of our lives after we went home. The dead are the lucky ones. I was still coming to terms with my first homecoming from war on the eve of leaving Afghanistan. I relived old firefights by night and avoided them by day. I was so neurotic about my guys’ safety, because I was tired of seeing young Americans die on forgotten battlefields, in wars no one back home gave a damn about anymore. Screw this, I thought. I led my squad through the second poppy field and onto a small dirt road that was within eyesight of our mountain home. After a year spent battling the crags and my convictions, I walked the last few painful, muddy steps with my chin up, because I knew that at least this time, it was all different. I knew that I was still dealing with some old demons, but at least I had managed to keep myself together. I had trained and led ten soldiers through twelve months of combat, and this time, I was bringing all of them home alive, and most of them were still in one piece. I did my job and I was proud. I looked at the faces of my soldiers and counted them as they walked through the concertina wire before keying my radio for the last time. “Hey Two-Six, Two-Three. We’re a hundred percent.” “Roger that Two-Three. Welcome home,” I stepped into our sandbagged outpost and smiled proudly. The next day, I again counted my guys as they boarded a CH-47 helicopter. It was our ride out of the bomb-laden mountains and back to Camp Disneyland, otherwise known as Kandahar Airfield, or KAF. KAF was our next stop on our way back to Germany, where we were stationed. Good riddance. I remembered my first awkward homecoming and I wondered how many years it would take to adjust this time. I closed my eyes and listened to the helicopter clamor through the desert dawn. I thought of red poppies. Later that night, a few of us went out to explore our interim home. Compared to our forsaken outpost, KAF was a 5-star resort, and we fully intended to enjoy ourselves. We bought cigars and pizza. We reminisced about humping our gear over mountains, getting rained on and eating expired MRE’s, all while the pogues stationed on KAF had such plush living conditions. The leviathan air base had USO shows, contractor-run dining facilities, and even a weekly salsa night on the boardwalk, an actual boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants. “Afghanistan: individual experiences may vary,” I joked as I chewed pepperoni pizza. Our twelve months here had truly sucked, but it paled in comparison to the combat I’d seen in Iraq years prior. I remembered the burned homes, the dead kids, and friends losing limbs. I felt stupid for complaining. “I’m just happy we got everybody here,” I said. “Those soldiers of yours,” my platoon sergeant looked to m,. “Brand, Espi, Spaulding…” “Yeah, they sure didn’t make it easy,” I nodded. Over the last year, I had to hold their hands through everything from weapons training to personal hygiene issues. I chewed in silence for several minutes. A greasy pizza and a Coke. I was in heaven. And that’s when the platoon sergeant’s phone rang. It was one of the soldiers in our platoon. I could hear the panicked voice. “It’s Spaulding,” the voice said. “Spaulding’s been shot.” What? Shot? It didn’t make any sense; we were miles away from any real combat, and we were on the eve of our homecoming. We scrambled to our feet and out the door, clutching our rifles as we ran. My heart raced. Two of us stepped into the road and tried to flag-down a passing bus. “All I managed to hear,” my platoon sergeant took a deep breath, “was that Spaulding’s been shot,” he sighed, “and that Baker did it.’” Baker? Baker was another soldier in our platoon and a close friend of Spaulding. Although they were both problem soldiers, none of this added up. “He said something about... they were playing,” my platoon sergeant’s face cringed, “and that Baker shot him in the head.” The bus dropped us off at the Combat Support Hospital exactly as the Humvee arrived that was carrying our wounded soldier Riley Spaulding. His face was covered in blood-drenched gauze. I could see that he had suffered a point-blank gunshot wound to the forehead. My mind raced with questions. The reasons why were still fuzzy; the trauma was all that was clear. I watched four Corpsmen carry Riley Spaulding onto a hospital bed and quickly wheel him inside. We followed closely. As they pushed the gurney through a doorway, Spaulding’s bandage fell from his face. He’s not gonna make it, I thought. We watched the frantic doctors do their damndest but it was no use, it was too late. I looked at the hole in Riley’s forehead. It was too much. God damnit. I stuck around to fill out the paperwork. What the hell Spaulding? I looked at his vacant eyes. You were trained better than this! I choked back tears as I signed my name, officiating his death. He was a lovable goof, kind of like a little brother. And now he was dead. A week later, the rest of us were back in Germany. We landed at Rammstein Air Base near Frankfurt, and then loaded buses on our way back to Vilseck where our lives that were interrupted a year prior had left off. I stared out the bus window at the hick, green pines and rain-soaked Autobahn. I didn’t know what to think about the carefree civilians driving beside us. They were completely oblivious. It was odd to not worry about IEDs. It was weird to be so close to home, because suddenly, it wasn’t such a vague concept. I thought of what it was like going home last time and shuddered. I wondered what it would be like now. This time, everything was different. I thought about Riley Spaulding. We were less than an hour away. JULIA EVANS, HOST: Tell me what that 100 percent meant to you right then at the poppy field when you were done with that final mission. BRENT: It’s like I had closure. My record was clean. There were no loose ends. I brought them all home like I said I would, and I did my job. (inaudible) I felt like at the moment like my decision was made. I was staying in. JULIA EVANS, HOST: What does it mean when someone loses their life in a war zone? Not in combat, but in a mistake like this? BRENT: To die in combat we all raise our right hands, we all say we’ll do it. It’s something we are trained to do, we’re prepared to do. You expected that as a possibility for you. It’s always there, it’s always in the back of your mind, but then when something like that happens, it’s just so disenfranchising. The whole meaning of everything you are doing. There’s nothing to it. It’s such a waste. It’s pointless and stupid and that’s harder to deal with. It’s easy to say these are the people that killed my friend and then to have some kind of recourse against that, you know. If anything, it was functional and it helped you do your job. But who would have ever imagined- after that happened, I talked to him once and he was crying and he was saying “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.” There’s no way that would have ever happened if he had been doing the right thing. There’s no excuse for that. You have this idea that your guys are so great and you’ve done such an amazing job, and then you get back and then now one of them is dead. Yeah, I did not talk to him again. JULIA EVANS, HOST: That’s our show. Incoming is produced by, Justin Hudnall with help from myself, Julia Evans. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, Kris Apple and Alan Jones. In the studio, Kurt Kohnen provides technical assistance, editing assistance from Tim Felton. Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and John Decker is Program Director. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

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JULIA EVANS, HOST:

From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the show featuring stories from the lives of American veterans told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Julia Evans. It was the last day, the last mission of Brent Wingfield’s tour in Afghanistan. He left his decision down to the wire. Would he stay in, or get out?

BRENT WINGFLELD: That bond- it’s enough. It was enough to keep doing it.

JULIA EVANS, HOST:

He knew from his time in Iraq that there was no such thing as a perfect tour, a perfect homecoming, but this time in Afghanistan, he was lucky. He was almost there. Whether that meant he should quit, or re-up, he couldn't decide. But I’ll let Brent tell you the rest.

BRENT: Hi. My name is Brent Wingfield, and my story is called Homecoming.

As I trudged through Afghanistan’s lush Mizan River Valley on what would be my final combat patrol, I stopped for a second to catch my breath before climbing an earthen embankment. I had to keep my guys out of the river bed where we were easy targets, and off the roads where the locals liked to bury bombs. They didn’t usually like placing the IEDs in or around their homes, so to hell with the roads, I thought.

We took the safest route: through their fields and farms. None of us wanted to be the latest casualty in a forgotten war, and no one was trying to be a hero, especially on our last mission. I took a breath, and looked at the fields ahead. An acre of red poppies danced playfully in the breeze and the craggy mountains cast a looming shadow over some mud-walled homes ahead. I marveled as the Afghan cliffs slowly swallowed the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. “It’d be kinda pretty if it weren’t for all those crappy houses.” The lush valley was a light show of colors. It was littered with crude, mud-walled homes, dirt roads and the scars of centuries of war. I was captivated, and sick of it. I missed my home, my wife, and my pug, Roxy. I missed having a beer after work. My gut wrenched over the decision I knew that I had to make, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to hang up my boots and say goodbye to life in the infantry. After a seven-year-love-hate relationship with the Army, most of which was spent overseas, I realized that I loved seeing the world, the camaraderie and the experience of serving, but I had long-since grown weary of the caveats.

I was at the end of my enlistment and had to choose: re-up or get out. I wanted to stay in but I was tired. I was tired of saying goodbye to my wife, tired of keeping my family at a distance, and I was tired of keeping a guilty tab on my growing list of dead friends. I longed for a “normal” life, and even though I didn’t have any idea what the hell that even meant. I just knew that it had to be better than all this.

But, I loved what I did. Training soldiers and leading them through combat- it was the most rewarding experience of my life. I loved the guys with whom I served like family, and being a grunt- it was all I had known since I was nineteen. I wondered if I should just accept the fact that this- this was my life.

I watched my soldiers following in formation. It had taken countless hours of training and a year at war to turn what was once a soup sandwich of misfits and teenagers into an effective fighting force. I smiled proudly and kept walking. As I stepped, I twisted my ankle and slipped. Gravity jerked my body one way, and sent the 90lbs of gear I was wearing violently in the opposite direction. I sailed to the ground like a bag of bricks.

“You alright?” The platoon sergeant half giggled through my radio.

“This’ll buff out,” I answered, still spitting out pieces of Afghanistan.

Miss this? Heh. Let me count the ways. I dusted myself off and kept moving.

I reached the edge of the scarlet morphine farm and climbed a wall to the next one. It was filled with poppies planted in neat rows, and as I climbed, my mind wandered back to scaling walls while fighting house-to-house in Southern Baghdad years back.

It wasn’t anything like this.

Back then, we would quickly climb crude walls, rush into half-ruined homes, and race to the rooftop. Entire neighborhoods would erupt into gunfire and my heart would race as I clutched my rifle’s grip, my eyes and sights racing frantically through the haze of incoming lead and the confusion of trying to tell who was trying to kill us and who was trying to just not get shot. I thought of the adrenaline rush as bullets sang just overhead. That carnivorous dread that gnawed at our sanity, and how we fought through it arrogantly.

I thought of the dozen guys that didn’t make it home and the couple dozen more who were broken, blown up or shot. I remembered how the rest of us were left to carry on and fight in their absence and I remembered how we tried to pick up the pieces of our lives after we went home.

The dead are the lucky ones.

I was still coming to terms with my first homecoming from war on the eve of leaving Afghanistan. I relived old firefights by night and avoided them by day. I was so neurotic about my guys’ safety, because I was tired of seeing young Americans die on forgotten battlefields, in wars no one back home gave a damn about anymore.

Screw this, I thought.

I led my squad through the second poppy field and onto a small dirt road that was within eyesight of our mountain home. After a year spent battling the crags and my convictions, I walked the last few painful, muddy steps with my chin up, because I knew that at least this time, it was all different.

I knew that I was still dealing with some old demons, but at least I had managed to keep myself together. I had trained and led ten soldiers through twelve months of combat, and this time, I was bringing all of them home alive, and most of them were still in one piece.

I did my job and I was proud.

I looked at the faces of my soldiers and counted them as they walked through the concertina wire before keying my radio for the last time.

“Hey Two-Six, Two-Three. We’re a hundred percent.”

“Roger that Two-Three. Welcome home,”

I stepped into our sandbagged outpost and smiled proudly.

The next day, I again counted my guys as they boarded a CH-47 helicopter. It was our ride out of the bomb-laden mountains and back to Camp Disneyland, otherwise known as Kandahar Airfield, or KAF. KAF was our next stop on our way back to Germany, where we were stationed.

Good riddance. I remembered my first awkward homecoming and I wondered how many years it would take to adjust this time. I closed my eyes and listened to the helicopter clamor through the desert dawn. I thought of red poppies.

Later that night, a few of us went out to explore our interim home. Compared to our forsaken outpost, KAF was a 5-star resort, and we fully intended to enjoy ourselves. We bought cigars and pizza. We reminisced about humping our gear over mountains, getting rained on and eating expired MRE’s, all while the pogues stationed on KAF had such plush living conditions. The leviathan air base had USO shows, contractor-run dining facilities, and even a weekly salsa night on the boardwalk, an actual boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants.

“Afghanistan: individual experiences may vary,” I joked as I chewed pepperoni pizza.

Our twelve months here had truly sucked, but it paled in comparison to the combat I’d seen in Iraq years prior. I remembered the burned homes, the dead kids, and friends losing limbs. I felt stupid for complaining.

“I’m just happy we got everybody here,” I said.

“Those soldiers of yours,” my platoon sergeant looked to m,. “Brand, Espi, Spaulding…”

“Yeah, they sure didn’t make it easy,” I nodded.

Over the last year, I had to hold their hands through everything from weapons training to personal hygiene issues. I chewed in silence for several minutes. A greasy pizza and a Coke. I was in heaven.

And that’s when the platoon sergeant’s phone rang. It was one of the soldiers in our platoon. I could hear the panicked voice.

“It’s Spaulding,” the voice said. “Spaulding’s been shot.”

What? Shot? It didn’t make any sense; we were miles away from any real combat, and we were on the eve of our homecoming.

We scrambled to our feet and out the door, clutching our rifles as we ran. My heart raced. Two of us stepped into the road and tried to flag-down a passing bus.

“All I managed to hear,” my platoon sergeant took a deep breath, “was that Spaulding’s been shot,” he sighed, “and that Baker did it.’”

Baker? Baker was another soldier in our platoon and a close friend of Spaulding. Although they were both problem soldiers, none of this added up.

“He said something about... they were playing,” my platoon sergeant’s face cringed, “and that Baker shot him in the head.”

The bus dropped us off at the Combat Support Hospital exactly as the Humvee arrived that was carrying our wounded soldier Riley Spaulding. His face was covered in blood-drenched gauze. I could see that he had suffered a point-blank gunshot wound to the forehead. My mind raced with questions. The reasons why were still fuzzy; the trauma was all that was clear.

I watched four Corpsmen carry Riley Spaulding onto a hospital bed and quickly wheel him inside. We followed closely. As they pushed the gurney through a doorway, Spaulding’s bandage fell from his face.

He’s not gonna make it, I thought.

We watched the frantic doctors do their damndest but it was no use, it was too late. I looked at the hole in Riley’s forehead. It was too much.

God damnit.

I stuck around to fill out the paperwork. What the hell Spaulding? I looked at his vacant eyes. You were trained better than this!

I choked back tears as I signed my name, officiating his death. He was a lovable goof, kind of like a little brother.

And now he was dead.

A week later, the rest of us were back in Germany. We landed at Rammstein Air Base near Frankfurt, and then loaded buses on our way back to Vilseck where our lives that were interrupted a year prior had left off.

I stared out the bus window at the hick, green pines and rain-soaked Autobahn. I didn’t know what to think about the carefree civilians driving beside us. They were completely oblivious. It was odd to not worry about IEDs. It was weird to be so close to home, because suddenly, it wasn’t such a vague concept.

I thought of what it was like going home last time and shuddered. I wondered what it would be like now. This time, everything was different.

I thought about Riley Spaulding.

We were less than an hour away.

JULIA EVANS, HOST:

Tell me what that 100 percent meant to you right then at the poppy field when you were done with that final mission.

BRENT: It’s like I had closure. My record was clean. There were no loose ends. I brought them all home like I said I would, and I did my job. (inaudible) I felt like at the moment like my decision was made. I was staying in.

JULIA EVANS, HOST:

What does it mean when someone loses their life in a war zone? Not in combat, but in a mistake like this?

BRENT: To die in combat we all raise our right hands, we all say we’ll do it. It’s something we are trained to do, we’re prepared to do. You expected that as a possibility for you. It’s always there, it’s always in the back of your mind, but then when something like that happens, it’s just so disenfranchising. The whole meaning of everything you are doing. There’s nothing to it. It’s such a waste. It’s pointless and stupid and that’s harder to deal with. It’s easy to say these are the people that killed my friend and then to have some kind of recourse against that, you know. If anything, it was functional and it helped you do your job. But who would have ever imagined- after that happened, I talked to him once and he was crying and he was saying “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.” There’s no way that would have ever happened if he had been doing the right thing. There’s no excuse for that. You have this idea that your guys are so great and you’ve done such an amazing job, and then you get back and then now one of them is dead. Yeah, I did not talk to him again.

JULIA EVANS, HOST:

That’s our show. Incoming is produced by, Justin Hudnall with help from myself, Julia Evans. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, Kris Apple and Alan Jones. In the studio, Kurt Kohnen provides technical assistance, editing assistance from Tim Felton. Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and John Decker is Program Director. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk again soon.