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Afghan front as seen by a Utahn: Magna soldiers thoughts on wife, home

BADULA QULP, Afghanistan — Spc. Jeremiah Butts tells a reporter his first name. "It felt good to say that."

In the U.S. Army, soldiers call each other by their last names. Butts has heard all the jokes about his surname in three years in the military.

Butts, 25, doesn't have a Purple Heart or any other high military honor. This is his first and, he hopes, his only deployment in Afghanistan. He's no hero or combat veteran, just a regular guy who ended up in a war. He's like a lot of the Americans fighting the Taliban insurgency, men and women with lives and loved ones back home.

The Magna native is in Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade, supporting a U.S. Marine onslaught on Taliban fighters in their strongholds in Marjah district in Helmand province.

Here, in his own words, Butts shares his thoughts on everything from love — "my wife … she's my inspiration" — to death:

"After a while, you get used to the idea that this might be your last day walking around. … I'm not afraid of dying. I know I'm not going to have to worry about anything anymore because I'm not going to be here."

Butts grew up in Magna, population 25,000, where "everybody knows each other."

"It's small. I love it though. … You can walk around and you never feel out of place because everyone's welcome."

The town lies at the foot of mountains, and there's a copper mine. It's green.

"There's trees everywhere. It's beautiful because in the summer it gets like 100 degrees, and in the winter you get 4 feet of snow. You get all four seasons. I can't wait to go back home to Utah where I belong."

He worked in construction, in the gravel pits.

"I've always done the backbreaking labor. I always wanted to go to school, but I never could quite afford it."

When he joined up, Butts was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., where he took "baby steps," working his way up to raid and assault drills. He and his unit got to Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan on July 15 and moved to Forward Operating Base Frontenec in Kandahar province.

"I was excited. … I could actually put my training to use, do what I'm supposed to do.… As soon as we started taking IEDs, losing people, the whole glamor started wearing off."

Butts is the driver of a Stryker infantry carrier, an armored vehicle often targeted by insurgents who plant roadside bombs, also called improvised explosive devices or IEDs.

"It's tough. You have to keep up all the maintenance on the truck, fluids, fuel. … You have to look out for IEDs. … You're constantly thinking a million things. … Just this morning, we were a hair's breadth from rolling that Stryker right over."

He says Stryker drivers are selected for being "not easily shaken. Give them a big responsibility, and they aren't going to crack under pressure."

When Butts went to Afghanistan, his father told him: "You're doing something bigger than yourself. I'm proud."

When he went on leave in September, "I got home, and all my dad's neighbors knew who I was. He's always been there for me. He's written me letters, sent me pictures, tried to keep me motivated."

His mother told him he was becoming a "man" and wasn't floating by anymore.

But it's his wife who is at the center of his life.

When someone Butts knew died, "it really got to me, and I called home and talked to her for hours. She said God has a plan, and it was his time to go. … She sends big, old boxes full of playing cards and board games, just small stuff to keep the whole platoon busy.

"We were talking about kids and decided it would be smarter to wait until I get back from deployment. I wouldn't be there to go through the steps, feel the baby kick, the heart beat, the first sonogram."

And if he were to die in Afghanistan, "I didn't want have a kid and have him grow up without a father, not be able to teach him all the 'man' stuff … if it's a boy."

He thought he knew his friends before, but living with the same group of men for close to a year has let him see so much more.

"You can't hide anything here. If you're having a bad day or something's bothering you, you can't hide it. We know each other's stories, fears, hopes, everything. … It's only natural you get on each other's nerves once in a while, cramped quarters for too long. … After a day or two, it's like nothing happened; it's all water underneath the bridge. … You never know if you're going to have a chance to say you're sorry for it later down the road."

At first he was very cautious — "everything looked like an IED to me." But now he's getting used to being in a war zone.

The insurgents, Butts says, "want to go home to their families, and you want to go home to yours."

The danger is constant. Once, he rolled up to a truck that was hit and there were five IEDs within 60 meters of it, "just waiting for us to hit them."

"You have to joke about death. We laugh about it, make fun of each other, 'I hope he steps on an IED tomorrow. I hope you get shot.' None of it is meant seriously. … 'I might let you sizzle for a minute, but I'll get you out.' … We were talking about which truck was going to get hit, which person was going to get hit, what week, what month, who's going to fall over first on the march — just to keep things entertaining."

But he does worry about what his death would do to his wife, Chasta DeHerrera.

"I don't want to break her heart by not being here.

"I always think about home — just the small things you miss the most, like walking in the front door from work, and your wife sitting there waiting for you, … the small things, the 'I love yous,' the comforts. I can go without all the partying and all the excitement and all the clubs. I just want to go home and hold my wife in my arms again."

On his right arm, Butts has a tattoo of "I love you" in his wife's handwriting, flanked by a green star and a blue star. "The North Star, sailors find their way home. … She did something similar. … She crocheted me a blanket. I sleep with that thing every damn night."

Butts' time in the army ends in September 2011. This deployment ends midyear, and he is looking forward to going back to the States.

"It's going to be safe. I don't have to worry about mortars or IEDs or getting shot. … I won't have to worry about driving over culverts or riverbeds and worrying they're going to blow up on you.

"I just hope it's not too hard to go back. I don't plan on going home and telling a bunch of war stories. The first few weeks I'll tell my stories and show my pictures to people who want to see them. After that, I'll just leave it in the past."

He plans to get a degree and a job and then "try to relax the rest of my life, have my kids. I don't want to deploy again. I can't be away from my wife."

"I think everybody should serve in the military because the protesters who sit there and say, 'You guys are murderers. You shouldn't be in that country.' … But us defending our country gives them the right to protest in the first place. They just need to know where to draw the line.

"I lost friends out here," Butts says. One of them was "the nicest, gentlest, a great human being. … He was leading this team across a footbridge, across a little stream. … As soon as he crossed the bridge, he stepped on a 'pressure plate.' … I saw the big blast go up, heard people screaming on the radio, 'What happened? Who's down? Who's hurt?' … We found him, I think they said, 100 to 200 meters away. He was just sitting, floating in the river. Missing arms and legs, but he had a smile on his face. He was pure Navaho. He was always saying he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. He wanted to go out like a true warrior. And he did."