Fresh out of training, Gene Frazee had a tough introduction to life in Iraq. As he and his company descended from the plane, there was only darkness and a scattering of soldiers using night vision. But soon the darkness was the least of Gene’s worries. The base began to receive incoming mortars and rockets. Gene and his company had never been in combat before.
“We were all diving in the ditches,” said Gene. “We were fresh off of the bus, and we’ve got people walking by with no armor, except for the weapon slung over their back.”
He would face more tests of his courage in the years to come. Gene, who now lives in McMinnville, Ore., was 32 when he joined the U.S. Army in 2004. A former firefighter and emergency management volunteer, he enlisted when his boss, a retired colonel, suggested he would be successful as a soldier. He trained as a welder, became an important part of maintaining functional equipment for the troops, and served in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside other soldiers who are still good friends today.
“I always wanted to join, but I never did due to family worries,” said Gene. “It was an eye opener, and I did not know what to expect.”
Gene did his basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where he muscled through the physical demands of training while searching for possible career opportunities.
“‘Relaxin’ Jackson’ is what it was called, but it was not relaxing,” he said.
Gene had the chance to specialize in a field that would provide him a career opportunity. His interest in explosive ordnance disposal was cut short after the job was given to another soldier. But the change of focus led to a career that worked out well for Gene.
“The one thing that did stick out to me was welding. I was a welder before I joined, so I picked something that I was good at,” he said.
Basic training also turned out to be a somewhat familiar experience for Gene after his time as a firefighter back home.
“When I got to basic training, it was just like firefighting,” Gene said. “Everyone was screaming, trying to get you all panicked and riled up.”
After basic training, he was sent to Advanced Individual Training, where he trained for his Military Occupational Specialty. Concentrating on welding, Gene was stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he lived on base without the opportunity to leave.
“We were not allowed off base where the closest town was 11 miles away,” he said.
Aberdeen provides training for the Marines, Navy and Army. Everybody trained together, but the Army soldiers were treated differently, Gene said. Marines were treated as full-time soldiers, which meant they could drink and could travel off-post.
“When you are in the Army, you have basic training and AIT training, which total about 13 weeks. After 13 weeks, you are considered a full-time active member,” Gene said. Those were a long 13 weeks for the soldiers in Gene’s group.
During AIT training, Gene found he liked welding, especially because it was an occupation that he knew a lot about. Well informed and motivated, he kept up on his work, making the training experience productive. Though he was offered a position at Aberdeen, he respectfully declined. His focus was on one thing only: getting to the war.
All of the other men in Gene’s class went to Fort Lewis in Washington state, but the Army had different plans for Gene. In training, he scored higher than everyone else in the class, and he was sent to Fort Hood in Texas to put his skills to work.
At Fort Hood, Gene used his welding skills to build gun racks, fix broken equipment and repair vehicles damaged in battle, among other jobs. Gene said his responsibilities were deemed some of the most important at the base, though most people might not realize it.
Gene eventually was deployed to Iraq. After his startling arrival in the country, Gene and his company became more experienced with elements of life at war. However, nothing compared to what he would see and do in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan was a whole ‘nother bird,” he said. “That … that was a true war. You were a soldier first, and Afghanistan was what made me not want to stay.”
Gene was still a welder for the 1st Infantry Division, and he and his company were valued because they were responsible for providing and repairing working equipment for war. Welding, however, was the last of Gene’s worries in the midst of battle.
Afghanistan provided Gene with his first taste of combat. He was posted at a combat operation base in an outpost in the mountains overlooking Pakistan.
“We had everything dialed in, and we knew what they were doing before they did it,” he said. “It did not matter how well we were prepared. They just kept coming at us.”
Gene could tell that the American presence was unwelcome. As U.S. troops helped to build schools, television stations and prisons, the facilities were quickly destroyed as a rebellion against the United States, he said.
“When you have Americans shoveling Western culture down their throat, of course, they are going to destroy it,” he said. “Afghanistan was a wake-up call, and that is where I became disillusioned with politics and how things should be compared to where they are.”
Despite the difficulties of his service, Gene found a new perspective on the significant aspects of life. His family and the men he served with are now the most important things in his life.
“The guys that I served with are my closest friends today,” he explained. “And every week, we keep in touch.”
Gene arrived home from his service in 2009, yet his philosophy remains the same. Even today, Gene continues to live with the same caution and mottoes from his Army experience.
“Before we get off of the phone, there is one thing that we always say before signing off: ‘No matter where you are, stay alert and stay safe,’” Gene said.
Writing: Michael MacClanathan
Photograph: Emmy Elliot