Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan – Spc. Kyle Sondergaard carries a string of beads given to him by a Sturtevant VFW post member.
Spc. Dan Carp carries a tiny metal heart trinket given to him by his fiancée.
The mementos are tangible reminders of home, symbolic hand shakes and hugs that link the soldiers serving in this war-torn country to Wisconsin.
The pair from the Wisconsin National Guard's Battery A, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, arrived in Afghanistan in May.
Battery A — also known as Alpha Battery — is a high-mobility artillery rocket system unit based at Bagram with one platoon stationed at another installation. The battery is only the second Wisconsin National Guard unit to perform a combat fire support mission in this country. Plymouth-based Battery B, which returned home in October, was the first. Though many artillery units from the Wisconsin National Guard have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers performed non-artillery tasks like convoy security and guarding detainees.
Because of their secretive mission, soldiers and their commanders in Sussex-based Alpha Battery were not allowed to talk about their work here.
After a dozen years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Wisconsin National Guard members here have served multiple deployments.
But two-thirds of Alpha Battery, including Carp and Sondergaard, are on their first overseas deployment, said Sgt. Maj. Jason Grundel, 38, of Milwaukee.
"Everyone has matured quite a bit and they're forming their identity as a team," said Alpha Battery's commander, Capt. Aaron Ammerman. "It's amazing how much they've grown."
Both Grundel and Ammerman served in Iraq — Grundel in 2006-'07 with Bravo Battery as a platoon sergeant; Ammerman with the 127th Infantry in 2005-'06 as a private 1st class and specialist.
"This is very different from Iraq because we were on the road. It was a different level of engagement," said Ammerman, 31, of Janesville. Added Grundel: "It's a lot easier to command and control people (on this deployment) because they're not spread out so much."
Because Alpha Battery is serving less than 12 months in Afghanistan, soldiers are not allowed to leave for a 15 day R-and-R, which meant Grundel missed his daughter's high school graduation.
Right before Grundel boarded a plane in Texas for the journey to Afghanistan, his wife handed him a calendar book. She tucked in family photos and wrote something each day for Grundel to read. And remember home.
Keeping in touch
Perhaps because so many are on their first deployment, remembering home — and how they got to this place — is a common topic.
Sondergaard, 23, of Racine joined the Wisconsin National Guard two years ago because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather and grandfather. His great-grandfather, Christ Sondergaard, fought in France with the 121st in World War I — in the same unit Sondergaard is in today. His grandfather served in the 95th Bomb Group which flew B-17s during World War II.
When Sondergaard met a Sturtevant VFW member during a memorial at a Racine cemetery, the man gave him a string of beads on a leather strap for good luck in Afghanistan. Sondergaard hangs them in a vehicle he uses here at Bagram.
"They're always out there with me. I know right where to find them," said Sondergaard, who wants to become an electrical apprentice when he returns home.
Carp, 26, a 2006 Whitefish Bay High School graduate, met his girlfriend at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he earned a political science and business degree.
He proposed by giving her dog tags printed with her name and "U.S. Army Fiancee." Puzzled by the phrase, she turned around to see Carp on bended knee asking for her hand in marriage.
She's a senior at Whitewater and they promised to write each other a letter each day during his deployment.
Because of the vagaries of the military postal system, Carp's fiancée sometimes gets two or three of his email letters at once. The record was nine letters delivered on the same day. He has posted more than 100 so far.
"My romantic, cheesy gesture was to write to her every day," said Carp, who was working at Wells Fargo before he was mobilized. "I'm very talented at finding new and exciting ways of saying 'I worked out today. The food sucks.'"
Mom worries 'every day'
Spc. Gerardo Cerdas, 23, and Pfc. Sean Nickos, 19, both of Kenosha, worried they wouldn't get a chance to deploy to Afghanistan, that they'd missed their chance at experiencing war.
"I heard about the deployment, but it was filled. Then I got a phone call about an opening," said Nickos, who was working at a gas station and warehouse before coming to Afghanistan. In their down time, they sleep, exercise, watch movies and play video games. Cerdas was excited when the hit film "Guardians of the Galaxy" was shown at Bagram Airfield during a visit earlier this month by a Disney Studios honcho. He had figured he'd miss it in theaters back home while he is deployed.
He misses his family and his mother's cooking.
"My mom worries about me every day. I tell her to stop watching the news," said Cerdas.
Pfc. Joshua Oakley, 25, of Racine, and Pvt. Samuel Ramey of Green Bay are also on their first overseas deployments.
Oakley is a machine operator at Thermal Transfer in Racine while Ramey works at Toppers Pizza. Oakley joined the guard for the college benefits and to serve his country; Ramey wanted to do something different in his life.
Ramey celebrated his 24th birthday earlier this month with a carton of knockoff Marlboro cigarettes made in Afghanistan, a present from his roommate, and a care package from his family filled with lemonade drink packets, beef jerky from a local meat market, and an odd gift. "My folks sent me a shot glass. The handle is shaped like a gun. I called them and said 'Really?'" said Ramey.
Even though the unit isn't serving a full year, it's still a long time to be away from friends and families. So they stay in touch via Facebook, Skype, phone calls and email.
Plus, there are objects like Sondergaard's string of beads and Carp's girlfriend's heart-shaped medallion, that keep them grounded.