Boys to men
Five years ago, five fresh-faced, not quite dry behind the ears yet, friends traded their high school diplomas for Army fatigues and marched off to serve their country.
Little did they know when they joined the Alabama National Guard on the buddy system that they would soon be farther from home than they had ever imagined and dusting the desert from their eyes.
Jeremy Burkett, Anthony Kilpatrick, Jeremy Price, Jimmy Evans and Shelton McMillon were high school classmates at Pike County High School and long and fast friends.
Joining the “Guard” together seemed like good idea.
When they arrived in Iraq with the 2101st Transportation Company, they weren’t quite so sure.
Leaving family and home behind had been difficult but, when best friends are together, the world seems to right itself.
“When we joined the Guard, we knew there was the possibility that we would have to go to Iraq. We just didn’t know it would be so quick,” Burkett said. “
But, we all learned a lot and we had to grow up in a hurry. I know that I am a better person because I went.”
Kilpatrick, laughingly, said the tour of duty in Iraq “made me the man I am today.”
Turning serious, Kilpatrick said being fresh out of high school, he had a lot of growing up to do and the military taught him responsibility and dependability.
“Going to Iraq was part of the commitment to country we made when we joined,” McMillon said. “We all knew that, given the chance, we’d do it all again.”
And, now they have that chance.
On Sunday, the five friends will leave with the 2101st Transportation Company in Demopolis for Fort Dix, N.J. where they will under go a couple of months of training before leaving for Iraq.
All five had re-upped in September 2008, “because we’re not too smart.”
“Really, the National Guard has been good for all of us,” Price said.
“We got a good bonus when we re-enlisted and the educational benefits are very good. It was just a smart thing for us to do.”
But after their first tour in Iraq, the five buddies weren’t even considering re-enlisting.
“I guess we all thought that we wouldn’t re-up,” McMillon said.
“But, after we got home and had a break, we realized it was a good thing to do.”
And, Burkett said he did so knowing that “they’ll get me again.”
It’s been five years since the friends were deployed to Iraq.
Back then, they weren’t long out of high school and they were uncertain about their education and careers.
Only Price had a wife and baby to be left behind. There was even a sense of excitement about the adventure ahead of them.
But five years makes a lot of difference.
Then, Burkett was working at the Henry Farm Center in Brundidge and wondering where life would lead him.
Today, he is married with children ages, 3 and 1.
He is an Alabama State Trooper and working toward a degree in criminal justice at Troy University.
When he was first deployed to Iraq, Kilpatrick was working at Wiley Sanders.
When he came home, he attended the aviation college in Ozark and is working at Sikorsky Support Services as an aircraft mechanic.
He is taking on-line classes at Troy University majoring in criminal justice.
His goal is to become a probation officer and he also plans to go to officer candidate school.
He and his wife are newly weds of six months.
In 2004, Price was testing the waters in law enforcement and was working as a jailer with the Pike County Sheriff’s Department.
Today, he is a deputy with the Pike County Sheriff’s Department and plans to go back to school and major in criminal justice and psychology.
He and his wife have two children ages, 7 and 5.
Evans was single and working at Wiley Sanders when he was deployed in 2004.
Now, five years later, he is married with children, ages 3 and 1.
He is working with Hughes Pools in Montgomery and is considering aviation college.
Five years ago, McMillon was working at HB&G in Troy with no concrete career choices in mind. But, in the military he found an interest that culminated with his attending the aviation college in Ozark.
He is a certified aircraft mechanic and works with Sanders Aviation.
As a young married man, he, like his friends, is taking his deployment in stride.
“We all accepted the fact that we would have to go again,” he said.
“But, in some ways, it’s going to be harder this time because we’re all married and have careers that we are working toward.”
But, on the other hand, Evans said, at least this time, they know what they’re “getting into.”
“It’s going to be sad leaving our wives, children and family behind but we’re going together and that makes it easier for us,” Price said.
“But, we’re all willing to go because that’s what we do and we take a lot of pride in serving our country.”
The young men realize that their wives are the ones who “will really have a hard time.”
“Having all the responsibility of the children and taking care of everything at home – that’s going to be a difficult thing for them to do,” Burkett said and added laughing.
“I don’t think I could do it.”
To a man, they said the hardest part of leaving is saying goodbye.
“We’ll say goodbye to our families on Sunday when we leave Demopolis and we won’t see them again until we get our 15 day R&R either the second or 10th month of our deployment,” Burkett said.
“But even if they could come to Fort Dix … well, that would be too hard for all of us … having to say goodbye again.”