Afghanistan combat veteran home for the holidays

Published on Wed, Jan 5, 2011 by By Jerry Huls

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With his family’s home off A Street in Blaine located just beside the truck crossing into Canada, it is ironic that Airman First Class Mike Starkovich’s profession in the U. S. Air Force is to protect the perimeter of a military installation as part of the security forces at the massive Bagram Airfield near Kabul, Afghanistan.

His first deployment completed, Starkovich made his way home to Blaine for the Christmas holidays. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to do things he can’t do anywhere else like play video games with his younger brother, open presents with his family and hang out with friends who are home from college.

“The best thing about being home is relaxing and not having to do any work,” the 2006 Blaine high school graduate and former Borderite basketball player said.

Sometimes, the need to spend time out with old friends has left his parents with less of his time than they might have hoped before he returned.

“I understand that he needs to do that,” said his mother, Karen Starkovich, “I’m just grateful that I get to see him asleep on the couch when he gets back.”

That gratitude is well founded. Starkovich’s 180-day deployment to Bagram was replete with stress, tension and danger. In his position as part of Bagram’s security forces, he mans a tower on a defense perimeter that is over 17 miles long and protects an area of more than 5,000 acres. It is a facility that is in a perpetual state of war against the insurgent Taliban.

“We get regular rocket attacks, especially in the summertime,” said Starkovich, explaining the almost routine nature of the attacks that occur weekly or as often as every two or three days.

Life on the frontline of the war in Afghanistan has taken a toll on Starkovich in the form of stress and tension, whether he is in Bagram, Germany or here in Blaine.

“I’m not working,” he noted, “(but) I’m always tense though. Every time I hear a bang, I jump. I walk in somewhere and I survey everything. I’m way more aware of my surroundings since I’ve joined the military.”

Starkovich has seen more than his share of combat in his first deployment in Afghanistan. When asked if he saw anything dramatic in his time in the country, Starkovich flatly replies.

“I saw a guy blow himself up in front of me,” he said plainly, describing one of many suicide attacks against the Bagram facility. “There’s always a lot of traffic in front of the base. We had gotten a report that there was going to be a suicide attack. I saw this guy moving slowly, kinda unsure of himself and we knew he was the guy. He knew we had guns on him and would never make it to the perimeter, so he detonated his bomb.”

The contrast between life in Blaine and Bagram grows more stark when reflecting on the events of the past year. Bagram Airfield was the site of the biggest attack against an Air Force-defended installation since the Vietnam War. On May 19, 2010 Taliban insurgents launched an unrelenting assault on the base using ground forces, rockets and mortars. The attack claimed the life of one civilian contractor and wounded nine others. Bagram defense forces killed at least 10 insurgents, many with helicopter gun ships. The attack, launched long before dawn, lasted eight hours and involved every part of the defense perimeter of Bagram.

“A rocket missed my tower by 10 feet,” Starkovich said, recalling the firefight. “They say time seems to slow when your life is in danger. The rocket was coming right at my tower at 300 meters. It seemed like 20 minutes and then the rocket just swerved up and went over the tower.”

Starkovich had a bird’s eye view of the catalyst for the battle.

“The civilian contractor was in his car trying to get back into the base when he was stopped by insurgents,” Starkovich said. “They ordered him out of the vehicle and when he refused they shot him in the car. That’s when we started shooting.”

The victorious battle didn’t leave any room for relaxation though, as for the next two weeks defense forces were on heightened duty, pulling 12 hours on and 12 hours off until the danger lessened. Starkovich noted that the civilian killed was two days away from returning home to the United States.

While the Bagram assignment has been grim indeed for Starkovich, it wasn’t without it’s shining moments either. Starkovich was called on to assess a crisis near his tower where an Afghan national, doing cement work, got his leg caught in a concrete grinder. Entering into the choatic situation, Starkovich applied a tourniquete to the worker’s leg. Base medical officials credited his quick thinking for saving the man’s life, though the worker’s leg had to be amputated.

The wartime experience is different for families than in previous U.S. military conflicts because of e-mail, video phones, Twitter and Facebook. Starkovich’s deployment entries quickly showed the mounting tension and stress created by the constant threat of combat.

“My patience for people ran out after about three weeks,” Starkovich confessed, “because you’re so stressed. That’s everybody though. That’s just the way it is.”

Because of the randomness of the attacks, he has had to take a pragmatic point of view about the resident danger of his job. He reflected after describing a single RPG attack in which the rocket pierced and killed a civilian on the flightline.

“When the rockets are on the way, there’s nothing you can do to get away,” Starkovich explained, “because you have no idea where they’re going to hit. The perimeter is so large that if you were hit, it was probably your time to go.”

“The best thing about Mike being home,” said his father, Chris Starkovich, reflecting on his son’s experience, “is being able to catch up with him on a different level than you can over a video phone or Facebook.”

Karen Starkovich doesn’t find it as easy to detach herself from the normal instincts of being a combat soldier’s mother, though.
“Once he got really sick with dehydration from E. coli from tainted bottle water,” she recalled, “and you worry, of course. When your son is sick at home, you can take care of him.”

Starkovich’s mother will be able to enjoy a season of relative easing of tension because he will be posted to Germany when his leave ends.

Starkovich, however, is expecting to be redeployed sometime after June. Both he and his family are continuing to enjoy the relaxation of being home for the holidays. He will continue to spend leave in the local area through the New Year’s holiday before returning to Ramstein Air Force Base.

Courtesy photo.