Stories from Afghanistan | November 7, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - November 7, 2008

Stories from Afghanistan

Young Danville soldier begins life as a veteran

by Geoff Gillette

It reads like a scene out of every great war movie ever made. Young soldiers running through a minefield, rusted hulks of Russian tanks and airplanes littering the landscape.

It's not a movie, though; it was everyday life for Ryan McWilliams, a 22-year-old Danville resident who recently left the army after his tour of duty in Afghanistan.

McWilliams joined the Army in 2004, not long after graduating from Monte Vista High School. The lanky red head and a friend decided during their senior year that once they graduated they would be joining.

"It was the whole 9/11 attack that made us want to join. I wanted to do something. Mike and I joined the Army together. We both wanted to serve our country," McWilliams explained.

Hollywood had some impact on which branch of the military he chose for his service.

"Just growing up watching all those war movies, it just seemed like those other guys really didn't do as much. Something about the Army drew me to it."

Just making the decision to join up wasn't quite enough. McWilliams had to jump through some hoops to get in when his physical condition was questioned.

"I went to the recruiting station in Livermore. It took some work to get in because I had to have some waivers signed." He added, "I had asthma when I was younger and I'd had some knee surgery. I had to prove those wouldn't be a factor."

Nearly six months after enlisting, the approval came back and McWilliams was shipped to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training.

"It was kind of what I expected," he said. "There was a lot of hard work, very tiring, and you don't get much sleep. Looking back, I think I had a lot of fun there, not counting the whole sleep deprivation thing."

Basic training is exactly what its name implies. New recruits are given the basic instruction they will need to be soldiers.

"You are there for nine weeks," McWilliams said. "They train everyone with those basic skills because no matter what you do in the Army you're still a soldier."

One of McWilliams' fondest memories of basic training came toward the end.

"It was the last week of training. We'd go out in the field and sort of show what he learned." He added, "I was the unofficial squad leader, I was in charge of five or six soldiers. We had to follow a map out to a predetermined spot in the woods."

McWilliams said they encountered the enemy twice during that exercise. "Once we got ambushed. We got away with no casualties. Then we found the actual enemy stronghold. We set up our position and took it. No casualties, which was pretty cool."

As pleased as he was by the completion of the mission, he was more excited when he was commended by an officer. "The lieutenant colonel of my brigade actually came up to me and said it was some of the finest soldiering he'd seen in a while and he was really impressed by how I executed everything."

It was also during basic that McWilliams began to get a sense for where he would go in the Army. "I went to Advanced Individual Training (AIT), which is where I learned how to work on the Humvees and the big diesel trucks."

McWilliams became a 63rd Bravo Light Wheel Mechanic, caring for the large trucks and other motorized units used in the Army. He worked on a number of vehicles but learned he had a special knack for the Humvee. "I could literally take it down to the frame." He laughed and added, "I could do it with one hand tied behind my back."

Once AIT was completed, the next stage for McWilliams was assignment to Fort Drum, N.Y. Fort Drum is home to the 10th Mountain Division. Assigned to the 227th Aviation Support Battalion, he dove into his job of support staff for the large armored vehicles.

"I worked on everything," McWilliams recalled. "I pulled the engine out of an LMTV cargo truck, swapped transmissions, whatever was needed to get them ready to be shipped."

Having grown up in California, McWilliams was unprepared for the fierce upstate New York winters. On one assignment, he got to experience that winter weather firsthand.

"We were loading vehicles onto flatbed trains to go to be deployed. That was a crazy day. It was negative 25 out there and it had just snowed so all of the flatbeds had about a foot of powder on them," he said. "We had to shovel all the snow off of them before we could bring the trucks up."

In addition, the flexible roof assemblies of the Humvees and other vehicles couldn't stay on while the trucks were being shipped so the crews had to stow them and drive the vehicles to the train with no tops on.

"That was cold. Some of them had snow in them. I like to tell people that we were smoking cigarettes that morning and in between puffs the butt would freeze solid."

McWilliams found that he missed the cold when a few months later he and other members of the 227 were deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"It was rainy and cool when we got there but it heated up in a hurry," he said. "We had a thermometer outside our IT people's tent and it went up to 145."

McWilliams said he did not know what to expect when he went to Kandahar, but he was certainly surprised by the stark beauty of the mountains and the countryside.

"There was a lightning storm one day. You could see these purple clouds coming over the mountains and the clouds were just so ... the lightning coming out of them was this purple, too."

Despite the change in locale, the job remained the same.

"My unit was tasked with bringing all the Humvees in southern Afghanistan up to battle readiness. I worked every day from dark to dark on 10 to 15 Humvees. We went 35 days without a day off."

Adding to the challenge was that his unit stationed at Kandahar was missing valuable equipment. "We didn't have any power tools. All the power tools went to the guys stationed up north. We borrowed things, we made it work."

While at Kandahar, McWilliams met members of the local populace, many of whom worked at the base. "They were very polite, very nice. But you didn't know if they were being all cool and nice now but if you ran into them off base it was another ball game."

McWilliams spoke of meeting an Afghan who was a general.

"We were on convoy training. I was the gunner and I dropped down into the turret to cool off and there was a general there with his translator," he remembered. "The translator said he wanted to talk to me and he asked me questions. He wanted to know where I was from and I said California. The first thing he (the general) said was, 'Baywatch.'"

Despite the cordial relations with the locals, the base was under attack frequently with mortar shells

"We got attacked a bunch while I was there," McWilliams said. "Had a close one. I was working on a truck and it (a mortar) landed right outside our building. Our buildings were in rows five or six deep and it landed one row over from us."

McWilliams said debris they found the next day showed that the device had been a white phosphorous mortar.

"They are supposed to explode in the air, the phosphorous catches fire and rains down on people. We were lucky this one landed and hit a Texas barricade (a large concrete barricade) which stopped the majority of it."

The attacks came with such frequency that the soldiers stationed there began to take them as a part of daily life.

"I remember the first time we got attacked," McWilliams stated. "We went out to the bunker in full battle rattle. My heart was pounding in my chest. But by the time I left Kandahar, if the alarm went off I'd make sure I grabbed my lawn chair and my cigarettes and would still be wearing my T-shirt and shorts."

This blasé attitude didn't indicate any sort of fatalism on McWilliam's part. He explained, "We didn't really get scared from it. It was just kind of part of being there. If you got scared from it you were going to be terrified the whole time you were there."

After eight months in Kandahar, McWilliams travelled to the Bagram base, outside Kabul. Bagram is a former Russian base from its 10-year occupation. Living conditions were harsher than those in Kandahar and soldiers like McWilliams had to make do with what was available. "It was kind of like a prison," he joked, "with a few more amenities."

The stark environment was made harsher by the fields of unexploded mines surrounding the base.

"It was weird. We'd be out on our PT (physical training) runs and there'd be these lines of engineer stakes out there that you could just reach out and grab. They were marking where the mines started."

Despite the marking stakes McWilliams said they always stuck to the paved road while out on their runs ... just in case.

After five months spent in Bagram, McWilliams was rotated back to the United States where he served the bulk of his term of service. He returned to California in April 2008 after being given a medical discharge and is now working for Longs Drugs while he prepares to go to school.

Being back home has been an adjustment. "It is kind of weird," he said. "I got lost a couple of times. I didn't remember a lot of people. I didn't have too many problems with it, but it was just sort of strange being back."

Another adjustment he's made is the idea that he is now a veteran. "It sort of sets you apart because you've been through stuff that people don't see on TV. I like it, I like to think of it as well deserved, well earned bragging rights."

He said being a soldier today is so different from in the days of World Wars I and II. "They went through a lot crazier stuff than I did. Way more people kept getting knocked off but they just kept on going. There's not as many people getting killed now but it's a different kind of war."

The difference for McWilliams is being able to know your enemy. "You had an obvious enemy back in the day. Here you don't know who the enemy is," he said. "A 7-year-old walking by you on the street could pull out a weapon."

At the same time, technological advances have made the process of war much different as well. "You're sitting in a Humvee today and you could order an airstrike as easily as ordering something online. You just touch the area on the map, click the options and then hit send. It could be an airstrike or a medevac, it's just that easy."

Once his paperwork is processed, McWilliams plans to take classes at Wyotech to get his certification as a diesel mechanic, using the skills he picked up while serving with the 227th. Regardless of where his schooling takes him, though, he said he will always value the time he spent as a soldier.

"I made friends for life. I learned a lot," he said. "Mainly how to cope with the worst situations. So pretty much anything else I can come into contact with I can deal with. There's nothing I can't do if I don't put an honest effort into it."