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Story Publication logo August 13, 2014

Home Nine Months, Four Wisconsin National Guard Members Re-up in Afghanistan


Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

How do you turn the lights off on a war? Wars end when troops come home, but what happens to all the...

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Spc. Aaron Burns of Manitowoc (from left), Staff Sgt. Anthony Steinhoff of Sun Prairie, Sgt. Justin Kundinger of Gilbert, Minn., and Sgt. Shawn Tilly of Green Bay all spent a year in Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and are back again with the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co. at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

CAMP MARMAL, Afghanistan — When Spc. Aaron Burns was in Afghanistan last year, he vowed never to return.

The sand, the dust, the heat during the nine-month deployment — Burns was so done with it.

"When we left it was 130 degrees," he said.

But he's back again. Along with three other Wisconsin National Guard members who, some might say, should have their heads examined.

The four built roads and guard towers, improved supply routes and shut down three forward operating bases in Kandahar Province with the Wisconsin National Guard 229th Engineer Co.

As soon as they returned home last summer they were asked if they wanted to join the Chippewa Falls-based 829th Engineer Co., which is here to close down bases and pack up the war.

Nine months later, with Afghan dust still in their boot soles, they were back.

Are they crazy?

"Everybody pretty much said that," said Sgt. Shawn Tilly, 25, of Green Bay. "I wanted at least one more deployment before the war ended."

Burns, 24, of Manitowoc, volunteered to go back to Afghanistan for college benefits. After his last deployment he was eligible for 60% of college tuition paid through the federal G.I. Bill. This trip will boost that to 80%.

He wants to become a commercial helicopter pilot and knows he must look outside Wisconsin for a good school.

He'll have to pay for his private pilot's license out of his own pocket, but training on rotary aircraft can be done through the G.I. Bill.

His dream job?

"Being able to wake up and say I get to fly helicopters instead of working in a foundry," said Burns, who works at Brillion Iron Works and has been laid off two winters.

Sgt. Justin Kundinger, 30, of Gilbert, Minn., served in the Wisconsin National Guard for 11 years before he was deployed overseas and figured he'd be able to pass on the knowledge he'd just gained from serving in Afghanistan to a new group of first-timers.

Though many in the 829th have served multiple deployments, quite a few are on their first.

"Since I had kids and a wife back home (during the first deployment) a lot of people asked me about that," Kundinger said.

Staff Sgt. Anthony Steinhoff, 26, of Sun Prairie spent the last deployment driving heavy equipment, including a vehicle called a MaxxPro MRAP, sort of a hybrid monster truck and Humvee on steroids.

Steinhoff befriended many Afghans, and it was painful to leave them when the 229th headed back to Wisconsin.

"The reason why I came back — it was heartfelt for me. We got to know a lot of the nationals, and I wanted to come back and help them," said Steinhoff, manager of Anytime Fitness in DeForest. "When I saw their faces when we left, it ate at me a little bit, so I volunteered to come back."

Once he made the decision, it took him three weeks to tell his parents and girlfriend.

"They were like — why? My mom is a sweetheart and very supportive, just really caring and my dad was like 'go do it, do the best you can,' while not letting on how worried he is for me," Steinhoff said.

Sometimes the soldiers wonder if they made the right decision.

Kundinger is missing his daughter Payson's 4th birthday. He missed her 3rd birthday, too. The four returnees are also missing another NFL season. And the work conditions are strenuous because of the heat and hard manual labor.

"When it's miserably hot, you get back from work and hopefully the AC works and you'd really like to open an ice cold Budweiser, but O'Doul's is what it is," Burns said.

Training was easier this time around because they knew what to expect.

And Burns knew which items on the packing list could be left behind and what things he needed to bring — like cold weather gear when it gets chilly this fall — that weren't on the list.

When asked if they would consider volunteering for a third deployment when they return home later this year, both Kundinger and Burns shook their heads. They said they're not that crazy.


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