I took portraits of combat-tested soldiers at Fort Bliss -- and they told me their incredible stories

Daniel Brown/Business Insider

FORT BLISS, Texas – I wanted to ask the soldiers about their stories.

I wanted to ask them why they joined the service, if and where they had been deployed, what their experiences were like overseas, what it was like coming home, and more.

But it was difficult.

I only had a few chances to speak to individual soldiers in-depth as I toured a number of different weapons systems during my trip to Fort Bliss.

The conversations were sometimes difficult. “I feel like a d–k for asking those questions,” I told one of the public affairs officers after interviewing an officer who became emotional while describing an incident in Afghanistan. “But I think it’s important for people to know these things.”

“Yes, it is,” the PAO said.

The first chance I got to speak to soldiers in-depth was when I met a couple of Abrams tank crews.

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Name and rank: Sergeant T. Wilder.

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Wilder, 27, of Athens, Tennessee, is an Abrams tank commander who said he’s been in the service for eight years.

“I joined right out of high school, like any typical high school kid does to get out of their hometown, pay for college, make something of themselves,” Wilder told me. “I got about 12 more years, and I can retire.”

Wilder said he deployed to Iraq in 2011 and 2012.

“I was part of the initial drawdown,” he said. “I was everywhere from Kalsu all the way down to Echo and K-Crossing.”

“It was fun,” he said. “I deployed in an infantry platoon so I was out doing route clearance patrols, patrols, convoy overwatch, and stuff like that.”

Wilder said clearing IEDs was “slow, long, about 16 hours at about 20 mph,” and that he saw all different kinds. “We saw several that were made out off 155 rounds, 105 rounds, saw one out of a propane tank, bunch of stuff stuck in water bottles and coke cans and stuff.”

He said he took “a little bit [of contact], but nothing major.”

When I asked him if he’d share any particular stories, he understandably shook his head no.

Name and rank: Specialist Christian Pena.

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Pena, 22, told me he has been in the Army for two years.

“I’m originally from Mexico, but I moved to Arizona when I was 10,” he said.

“I joined the Army ’cause this country has given me so many opportunities that I’m so grateful for – and it’s my way of repaying it,” he said.

He said he hasn’t deployed yet, but that “it’s definitely something I look forward to.”

“Man of few words,” the PAO said jokingly.

I also got to speak to soldiers when I was with a Paladin battery.

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Name and rank: Staff Sergeant Christian Carado.

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Carado, 33, from San Francisco, told me he’s been in the service for 14 years.

“I came from a long line of military people from the Philippines and the US, so it was just natural for me to join,” Carado said, adding that he loves the brotherhood.

“I’m a 2nd platoon gunnery sergeant,” he said. “I am in charge of maintenance of all vehicles, and I’m the platoon sergeant’s right-hand man.”

He said he’s completed one tour in Iraq, and three tours in Afghanistan. His roles varied in the the latter three tours, serving as an infantryman, an artilleryman, and mortarman.

“It sounds like you were in a lot of danger in Afghanistan,” I asked.

“You could say that,” he said. “That’s what the job called for,” adding that he took a lot of contact.

But he said he reacted to it pretty well. “You find out what kind of person you are when you hear the first shot … the first zing, then you know it’s go time.”

But he understandably didn’t want to share any specific experiences. “Not in an interview,” he said.

I asked him what it was like coming home after a deployment.

“I just came back like it was nothing … I grew up in a big military family so it was like second nature to me.”

Name and rank: Staff Sergeant Howard Curtis Ward.

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Ward, 50, said he’s been in the service for 19 years, serving six years in the Navy and 11 years in the Army.

He served on the USS Sierra and USS Shenandoah in the Navy, and in the Army was deployed to Iraq four times in 2007-2008, 2009-2010, 2013-2014, and lastly 2016-2017.

“That’s a lot,” I said.

“It happens, unfortunately,” he said, adding that he was deployed mostly to central Iraq near Ramadi, Al Asad, and other places.

“This last deployment was the Paladins,” Ward said. “The rest of the time we were a security force or running gun trucks to keep villages secure, but my last deployment was the first time I ever fired artillery in combat.”

Ward said he fired several hundred Paladin rounds against ISIS in the last deployment, and has also taken a lot of contact in the four deployments.

“You can’t go over there that many times and not take contact,” he said. “There was a little indirect fire” on the last deployment, and direct contact during the other deployments.

“A lot of that I can’t comment about,” he said.

I asked what it’s like to return home after a deployment.

“My God relieves all that stress and pressure off me,” Ward said. “He can worry about that, I’m gonna carry on with my life … that gives me a calming sense.”

“Those times are almost like dead zones,” he said. “I’ll be talking to my family back home, and I say ‘remember this last year?’ And they’re like ‘that was two years ago, cause you know you were deployed for a year.'”

“It’s almost like that time isn’t counting in my life,” he said. “I remember every bit of it, just like it was yesterday, but it’s not something I dwell on … I don’t do sympathy. I do empathy, so that might help me too.”

“People highlight the military, police, the firefighters, and stuff for their PTSD. We get a light shined on us more,” he said. But “it’s in all walks of life.”

“I tell my soldiers all the time … find solace in something, I don’t care if it’s your damn X-Box,” Ward said. “So when you get back to it, you can let go of everything that’s happened, calm down, relax. Let your mind get away from everything that’s happened.”

“Don’t dwell on it,” he said. “Stop dwelling on the past.”

When “we go out on missions, we come back in and I tell my crew, ‘alright forget all that, we gotta refit and be mentally sound for the next mission.'”

Name and rank: First Lieutenant Elena Ruiz-Krause.

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Ruiz-Krause, 25, is from Toledo, Ohio, and has been in the service for six years.

She told me she originally joined to pay for college, but fell in love with it and decided to stay in.

She oversees a platoon of three Paladins, and was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq “in 2016-2017 in support of Spartan Shield.”

“I went to Kuwait, [and] very briefly went into Iraq,” Ruiz-Krause said. “My job was just security. I was a Joint Fires Observer, so I was able to talk to aircraft. My job was to move with them, and if anything happened where we needed to call in aircraft or support, that’s what I was supposed to do,” adding that it was a short mission into Iraq, and that she was never in any danger.

The PAO asked her what it’s like to not only be the sole female in the Paladin battery, but also its leader.

“They treat me exactly the same,” she said. “I grew up with guys. I have two brothers. I’m definitely a girly girl when I’m back home, but when it’s time to come out here, I’m just one of the soldiers.

“They tease me a little bit. I’m obviously the first female platoon leader they have had,” she said. “I tend to be a little motherly, so, you know, if I see morale is getting low, I walk around with a big bag of suckers and I’m like ‘here, have some candy, guys’ and they’re like ‘ma’am.'”

But she said that the soldiers appreciate her, and that they just tease her like she’s one of the guys.

“I care very much for my soldiers,” she said.

Name and rank: Captain Alan Bauerly.

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Bauerly, 31, is an army brat, and told me he’s been in the service for 14 years, five of which were in the Kansas National Guard.

He joined to pay for college, but also because it “seemed like the right thing to do” since his grandfather and then father, who went to Kosovo and Desert Storm, also served.

“I’ve done several [tours], went to Iraq for 12 months,” he said, serving in the Baghdad area in 2010 and 2011, and then recently returned from another deployment to Iraq.

“We shot in support of the taking of Mosul,” he said about his last deployment. “Shot all kinds of rounds. Shot rounds I never thought I’d get to see shot: the Excalibur rounds, all kinds of cool stuff.”

“I was on battalion staff as a battalion fire direction officer,” he said. “So my role at the battalion was when a fire mission came down, I would figure out how to kill it and with who, and then I would send that data to one of the line batteries who would then execute it.”

He said he fired about 1,000 rounds while “moving up to Mosul and firing into Mosul … The Iraqi Army would move forward. Take contact. Stop. Wait for us to rain death, and then move forward again.”

“It really is amazing how much differently their military operates than the way we do,” he said. “The NCOs here … [are] usually in the trenches with the soldiers … the Iraqi military is the exact opposite. As soon as you become NCO: ‘Hey, man, that’s below me, shoo-shoo go away.'”

“Over here, I lose one soldier, and it’s a significant, emotional event for me,” he said. “I care about every soldier under my command. Over there, [it’s] ‘stupid soldier, you shouldn’t have stepped on that IED, should have known better’ … It’s just a very different mentality of operations.”

But he said the Iraqi Army was different on his second deployment. “This second time around, there was actual patriotism there. First time, there wasn’t: it was, ‘Hey, I’m just collecting a paycheck.'”

I asked him if he was ever scared.

“Yea, it sucked,” Bauerly said. “They never hit my truck … but I can tell you I’ve seen them [get hit], and it’s not a pleasant experience,” adding that “they’d let us know every once in a while that they wanted us dead.”

I also asked him what it’s like coming back from a deployment.

“This sucks, this terrain sucks,” he said, looking out on the sprawling desert training grounds. “Because I don’t have a clear mental, visual break from Iraq … I look around, and it’s the same brown s–t everywhere I look.”

“My wife doesn’t understand it,” he said.

“I know it’s hard for others,” he also said. “I have a cousin who was blown up by an IED … and he got it pretty badly.”

“He had issues with that. He became an alcoholic for a while, has PTSD from it. He’s been sober for a while … but for a while he was pretty messed up in the head. So that’s why I try not to judge others.”

“But he’s doing fine now,” Bauerly said. “He’s remarried, got a nice kid … He’s on full disability now cause he has shrapnel on his whole right side. He has to wear that special tag for when he sets off [metal detectors].”

Name and rank: Major Matthew Daniel Meyer.

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I spoke lastly to the major in his office.

He told me he’s been in the service for 16 years, and that he joined while studying history and anthropology at the University of Houston.

Meyer leads a sustainment brigade of about 1,000 soldiers, 200 of whom he had just returned with from Afghanistan in November.

“That was my third [tour],” he said. “I did Iraq from 2006 to 2007 timeframe, and then my first time to Afghanistan was from 2009 to 2010 timeframe.”

“In Iraq, I was on what is called a Military Transition Team, or a MIT,” he said, “and it was just an 11-man team that you were assigned to go and … kind of [train], advise and assist … and we were assigned to an Iraqi battalion.”

He said he took contact on average every week in Iraq, ranging from day-long firefights to receiving random potshots. “They ran the gamut.”

“There were a few incidents where an operation was put in place, and we were there to reinforce our Iraqi battalion – and, yes, we got into a firefight with a direct enemy that, yes, ‘I see you, you see me type of thing,’ and we were returning fire.”

I asked what goes through your head in that kind of situation?

“Honestly, that’s where your training kicks in,” Meyer said. “Because of the mission we had, we actually got a lot more additional training … So when those incidents occur … that training and those instincts kick in and take priority and hopefully supersede that fear so that you continue to fight.”

“The main one that I just remember [was] back in 2006” in Baghdad, he said. “It was a mission, and the idea was our battalion was the cordon – the outer security for a neighbourhood, and there were several other units that were clearing that neighbourhood of insurgents.”

“Our job was the cordon portion of it, and a couple of our Iraqi checkpoints were getting hit and attacked … and so we were responding to those,” he said. “We actually had a couple American units that got pinned down … One of our sister MIT teams ended up getting pinned down into an area, and so we went in and were able to reinforce them long enough to where they could pull out safely.”

“That mission was about an entire day to clear that neighbourhood, and that one was probably the most intensive one that we had while we were there,” he said. “There was a known enemy and they were there to fight.”

“I don’t recall on that day, if and how many US soldiers were wounded, but I don’t recall anybody being killed,” he said.

I asked him what it’s like to return from a deployment.

“Everybody has different experiences,” Meyer said. “Something that might not effect somebody, truly effects somebody else.”

“There’s definitely that honeymoon phase immediately when you come back where you’re relieved: ‘I’m back, I made it, I’m alive. All of my friends are alive,'” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t all come back.”

“My first one in Iraq, the team that I went with, all of us came back and none of us were injured,” he said. “My second one, when I was a company commander in Afghanistan, the unit that I was in took several casualties, and a lot of people were killed, and I actually lost one of my soldiers.”

“I would say most people are on a kind of heightened sense for a while where even the common things – a door slamming, a car that back fires – [it] doesn’t set you off, but it startles you,” he said.

“As time goes on, hopefully for most of us those things kind of go away,” he said. “Usually the army is pretty good at establishing organisations that are there to talk to you about it.”

“I know actually I did use it when I came back from Afghanistan the first time,” he said, his voice a little shaky. “Um … that, that was a … it was a big deal.”

The major paused for a few moments. His eyes got red and he began to tear up.

But “it’s a volunteer army,” he said. “You come in because you want to come in … whether it’s love of country, family heritage, college … we do it because we want to.”

We then went outside where I took the picture above.

This story is dedicated to all the soldiers I met at Fort Bliss.

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