Rangely Guardsmen return home

Three Rangely pals went to Afghanistan together, now the men are home. Their lives have changed.
Three Rangely pals went to Afghanistan together, now the men are home. Their lives have changed.
RANGELY I In July, Utah National Guardsman and Rangely High School graduate Greg Skelton left with brother Brian and childhood friend Zachary Green for a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan with the 624th Engineer Co., 1457th Engineer Battalion.
Skelton left not only his hometown but wife Tiffany and five-week-old daughter Savannah. Including the two months of training preceding the deployment, Greg had been away from them for just under a year.
That is why, when Greg arrived with his company at the Utah Air National Guard Base in Salt Lake City on April 25, it meant something when 1-year-old Savannah hesitated just a moment, then ran full-bore into his arms.
“The feeling was indescribable, amazing,” Tiffany said of the reunion, where hundreds of family members and friends flooded the base tarmac to welcome the 624th home. “When he hugged me, I knew it was really over, that he was really safe and home.”
While Greg came home to a daughter he’d met just a few weeks before his deployment, Zach Green and Brian Skelton returned home to meet their sons. Both men were among the 25 National Guardsmen whose wives and partners had babies while they were gone. Both are first-time fathers.
Brian stepped off the plane in Salt Lake City to greet girlfriend Ashley Blake and hold his son, three-month-old Karter, for the first time. Moments later, after brother Mark slipped a diamond ring into his pocket, he proposed to Blake.
“I was pretty nervous about the proposal,” Brian said. “It’s kind of blurry because you don’t expect you’re going to cry, but it kind of overtakes you. Mark said, ‘Here’s the ring, bro,’ and I thought, ‘I’ve gotta do it now.’ She got really excited.”
Zach Green wasn’t on the chartered flight but in the crowd on the tarmac, ready to welcome his company home. He had arrived in Montrose, Colo., in early March after obtaining emergency leave to return to wife Sarah and son Eli, who was born on Dec. 15. Sarah, who had a grand mal seizure the day of Eli’s birth, later learned she has had epilepsy since 2005. Now she was trying to care for a newborn without knowing when another seizure would strike. It was what prompted Zach to request the early leave.
“I can’t even tell you how alone I felt while I was going through it all,” Sarah said. “Of course I have the support of the Greens and my family, but having the baby and going through (the epilepsy) on top of it….Now Zach’s here to help me figure out what’s going on and we can go forward with it together.”
For all three men, moments in their journey are marked by significant dates and numbers. Like April 11, Savannah’s first birthday, celebrated exactly two weeks before her father’s return; 6 pounds, 10 ounces, Eli’s weight at the time of his birth; 292 and 341, the number of days, respectively, that Green and the Skeltons were away from home.
Another number the Guardsmen will forever link with this deployment: 34,000. That’s the number of square feet of living space the 624th Engineer Co. built over the course of seven-and-a-half months. The company worked in FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) across Afghanistan, building structures for U.S. Central Command.
From left: Greg Skelton, Zach Green and Brian Skelton share experiences of their nine-month deployment to Afghanistan with Cheryl Blackburn’s Rangely Middle School English class. The class sent letters and a care package to the men during their deployment. All three have decided they will remain a part of the National Guard despite the deployment.
From left: Greg Skelton, Zach Green and Brian Skelton share experiences of their nine-month deployment to Afghanistan with Cheryl Blackburn’s Rangely Middle School English class. The class sent letters and a care package to the men during their deployment. All three have decided they will remain a part of the National Guard despite the deployment.
Stationed out of FOB Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, Zach, Brian, and Greg traveled primarily by helicopter to build barracks, gyms, laundry facilities, chow halls, showers and medic stations. The structures had all the components of buildings in the states, from plywood and floor joists to electrical work, insulation and heating. Called “bee huts” or “super bee huts,” depending on their size, buildings could be constructed in five to seven days. They could also be destroyed if necessary.
“We built 64’ by 24’ barracks in seven days,” Greg said. “We got pretty good at doing the same plan over and over and trained a lot of guys since a lot of them had no clue about building … The bee huts were quickly built, ready to use and disposable. The Army might burn it down the day after we built it.”
If a FOB closed, the facility would be dismantled or burned, Skelton said. The idea was to return the area to something resembling its original landscape before the troops’ arrival there.
Although the company didn’t regularly convoy from place to place, any travel outside of a compound was risky. Helicopters regularly executed combat landings and takeoffs to minimize danger during transports, Skelton said. Units were vulnerable inside FOBs, too. The Taliban, which set up offensives just outside the compound, regularly shot mortars into the FOBs, though often with poor accuracy. FOB Ghazni was a particular target.
“A lot of attacks were planned on this place,” Greg said. “It’s a really active Taliban area. They were always shooting RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and mortars into our FOB….the first night we were there, we took indirect fire. Later on, some hit within 50 meters of our building.”
In bigger FOBs like Ghazni, an alarm warned troops of incoming mortars or RPGs. That usually meant the company had time to duck and run to a bunker, Skelton said. It would take 45 minutes or more before the area was swept and cleared.
After some time, the routine of living and working day to day became familiar, they said. Between 10-to-12-hour workdays, exercising, playing games or guitars and talking to family, the time passed quickly. But the real danger lay in becoming too comfortable with the routine.
“At first we were so busy didn’t have time to stop and think,” Greg said. “A month would go by and then another month. We’d be hitting the weight room every day or twice a day. Eventually, it did slow down. But it was always important not to get complacent because you never knew when something was going to happen.”
That the platoon constantly worked and watched together, and that many of them knew each other from past years in the National Guard, built a deep camaraderie within the group. For Brian, Zach, and Greg, the closeness they’d had growing up only intensified.
“It was definitely cool, having Brian and Zach, all of us together,” Greg said. “It made the deployment easier. You’re already missing your family, so it’s nice having common ground with people you already grew up with.”
Now, following the men’s demobilization in Fort Bliss, Texas, and return home, life is slowly taking on a new rhythm. Greg returns to work for Encana next month while Brian is looking for a job. Zach will return to finish a biology degree at Colorado Mesa University this fall.
They come home as sons, brothers, fiancés, husbands and fathers. But they’re relying on their family and on God to show them how to fill those roles well.
“It seems kind of surreal to be back here,” Brian said. “Honestly, I did a lot of praying about it, asking for the courage and the strength to be able to transition back here, to be able to come in and let (Ashley) teach me how to be a parent. …I also feel a lot more confident coming home as a father. I have more responsibility now, obviously, and it’s like, ‘OK, I feel a lot more excited because now I’m providing for Ashley and Karter.’ I’m going to go out, get a job and make sure they’re both taken care of.”
Zach experienced similar feelings upon seeing Sarah and Eli at the Montrose airport in March.
“As soon as you get to hold them and see them those first couple of days, you realize how much you missed,” Green said. “If you’d gotten to be there with them from the beginning, you could learn how to parent together. But at this point, you have to go off of her cues. She’s got it down and knows the tricks.”
Whatever’s next, the Skeltons and Zach know something of what their future holds. All three men either have re-enlisted or plan to re-enlist for another six years with the National Guard with the goal of one day retiring from the service.