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Appreciating sacrifice: Deployed soldiers recall pioneer ancestors, celebrate Utah holiday

By Staff Sgt. Rich Stowell

Utah National Guard

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — They traveled thousands of miles with few belongings to settle in a remote, arid and austere place.

The story can sound oddly familiar to Utahns this Pioneer Day — strangely ironic to these servicemen and servicewomen deployed to Afghanistan.

Kandahar Airfield is their temporary home. And even as their mission demands as much focus as ever, they take time on July 24 to think about their pioneer heritage, their families, and what it all means in light of their service to country.

A little band of Utah National Guardsmen planned to host an authentic, Beehive State barbecue 10 ½ hours before anything in the Mountain time zone. They even ordered up some July-in-Utah weather, just for tradition's sake. Forecast is around 110 degrees.

The unit, based in Draper, left Utah in March for mobilization training on the East Coast. By early May, the group was in Kandahar. Many of the soldiers are fourth- and fifth-generation Utahns, whose ancestors settled the state when it was known as Deseret.

Sgt. Mike Smith, a member of Dakota Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, is spending his second Pioneer Day in Afghanistan. Most of the 20,000 service members and civilians who live here will pass the day unaware of the state of Utah or how it was settled.

Smith is used to it. Growing up in Southern California, he remembers having been among the few who celebrated the holiday in Huntington Beach. It was their “special holiday that only members of (the LDS) Church understood.”

Then he got married and moved to Utah.

“Pioneer Day celebrations became statewide affairs,” Smith said. “The 24th of July meant Days of '47 parades, fireworks — and a day off of work.”

He remembers the emphasis on pioneers in church during July. The devotionals, the stories of faith and sacrifice.

For many service members from Utah, Pioneer Day has particular poignancy as they compare pioneer faith to their own situations in Afghanistan. Removed from the summer festivities back home — parades, rodeos, cookouts and fireworks — they have found a deeper appreciation for those sacrifices of the early Utah settlers.

Smith finds a parallel between their perseverance and his own military service.

“My heart ached for families who lost loved ones and rejoiced for those who made it to the Salt Lake Valley alive.

“As I think about spending this time of year away from family and home, I realize once more how much I have been blessed. I think of the pioneers, and know that their struggles were far greater than mine have been,” he said.

One Pleasant Grove soldier, on her first deployment, said she draws strength from thinking about pioneers.

"When I'm going through a hard time, I realize that it doesn't compare to the suffering that (Utah) pioneers experienced. They traveled through really rough conditions, but they kept going," said Sgt. Chloe Card, broadcast NCO from the 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

Maj. Choli Ence also thinks about the struggles of the original Utah pioneers. Her great-grandparents emigrated from Switzerland and were among the original settlers of Ivins, in Utah's Washington County.

“You always heard stories — my grandpa, you know, his parents were the founding generation. I’d always hear about how he and his grandfather would farm, about how tough it was. They had a hard time growing things,” she said. “But they persevered and prospered.”

To Ence, the commander of the Utah National Guard’s 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, the pioneer spirit is about working hard to make a better life.

“They didn’t have a lot of the luxuries that are available to us now. They were industrious people, and despite all the challenges, they put forth effort to survive, to flourish.”

Hard work is a familiar refrain from these deployed military service members. Smith equated the pioneer toughness to the Warrior Ethos, a code that guides U.S. Army soldiers: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

“The pioneers had a mission — to find the place that God prepared,” he said. “Those who accepted that mission did everything they could to make it happen.”

Another soldier, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Young, felt like a pioneer when he made a new start in the military. Each July 24 reminds him of those challenges and changes.

Young grew up in St. George, then taught elementary school in Magna for two years when the attacks of 9/11 motivated him to join the Air Force. He moved his family to Monterey, California, where he trained at the Defense Language Institute. After several years as an Air Force linguist, he decided to become a helicopter pilot, which meant more moves.

He credits his wife with the ultimate display of pioneer perseverance, remembering how she made the best of each situation. Living on the old Army post Fort Ord in Monterey, Young recalls how she beautified their dilapidated yard with patience and love.

“Some people think the pioneer trek was from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City,” said Young. “For us, it started in Salt Lake City, and who knows where it will end.”

For Senior Airman Austin Aitken, military service means opportunities to live the pioneer spirit, too. A North Ogden native, Aitken joined the military in January 2012. With the possibility of stationing at hundreds of places around the world, his first assignment was in his own backyard, at Hill Air Force Base.

Just a few months after he was married, though, his unit mobilized for an assignment in Afghanistan. Aitken sees the deployment as an opportunity.

“The pioneer spirit is stepping out of your comfort zone,” he said. “It’s going out and doing something that normally you wouldn’t do or others haven’t done but being willing to do it. Not a whole lot of Americans get the opportunity to deploy, especially to a combat zone.”

Young’s thoughts also go to family. He said his wife has left her mark of beauty at every stop on their pioneer journey.

“Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Lacey, Washington, have all become more beautiful from my wife having stopped to live awhile on our pioneer journey,” Young said.

Ence’s family will be gathered in St. George.

“All my siblings, my mom, cousins, nieces nephews will be there,” she said. “I’ll be thinking how much I miss them and spending time with family, enjoying the closeness that comes with holidays.”

Thinking about family helps Smith realize just how much the Mormon pioneers of 1847 sacrificed.

“I get to speak with my family from across the world twice a day. I can share my difficulties with them, and they can give me instant encouragement,” he said. “My meals are prepared for me, I have shelter provided, and air conditioning greets me in my office and in my bedroom.”

"Growing up in Utah, we are taught about how (the pioneers) were persecuted, driven across the plains, and settled in a not-so-hospitable place. But they made it happen," added Sgt. First Class Brock Jones of the 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

"It was similar for us in Iraq, in the sense that we lived in austere conditions and had to do hard things. But we just did it," he said. "The spirit of being a pioneer is having to do something that people haven't done before, and figuring out how to do it."

Despite the challenges of a military deployment, or perhaps because of them, these service members will have a Pioneer Day they will never forget. Just because they're 7,500 miles away doesn't mean they can't fire up the grill and keep up with the celebrations.

Rich Stowell is a staff sergeant in the Utah National Guard, and a doctoral student at the University of Utah. He is currently deployed to Afghanistan, serving in the Public Affairs cell in Regional Command-South, in Kandahar.