Nothing about the United States’ engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan is simple, starting with debates over whether the nation should have gotten involved in the first place to its exit strategy. In the middle are tens of thousands of American troops and their families who must deal with the daily impact of war on their households, incomes and emotional well-being.
In many ways, Brian Kitching, who’s been deployed to Afghanistan four times, is one of the lucky ones. Military service has enabled him “to be all that he can be,” as the Army’s slogan goes, on the fast track from enlisted man to captain. He is the embodiment of every little boy who ever played toy soldiers or dreamed of becoming G.I. Joe, and he has survived four deployments relatively unscathed.
In 2000, Kitching, then 22, enlisted in the Army after a stint at Oakwood College. Two years later, he was sent to Afghanistan, where he worked primarily on building up Afghan security forces.
“It wasn’t common then to meet someone else in my unit who had deployed before, so it was all very new for everyone,” recalls Kitching, who hadn’t at that point confronted enemy forces.
After four months, he was allowed to return to the States to accept a scholarship he’d previously applied for that enabled him to complete a degree in economics at Alabama A&M University, get married and return to the Army in 2005 as second lieutenant.
After officer training at Fort Bragg, Kitching was deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months. During that time, he missed most of his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of their son, now 3. It was tough on him, but tougher still on the 45-man platoon he was commissioned to lead, some of whom were as young as 17.
“Fifteen months were very long, and we had hundreds of patrols,” Kitching recalls of that period, during which he and his gunner were awarded a Bronze Star. “I’ve seen fear in some of those younger guys. They will feed off of the leadership or lack thereof in their platoon. You’re dealing at the lowest levels with probably a sergeant who could be 22 or 23 years old, leading three or four guys who are just 18 or 19 years old."
Living in tight quarters, sharing emotions about missing family and friends, only exacerbates the closeness that troops develop for each other, knowing that one of them could be ripped away the very next day.
As a member of the Army’s Special Operations team, Kitching’s deployments are now much shorter at three or four months—but far more intense, and the G.I. Joe in him relishes the opportunity he’s been given to lead. War bonds people, he explains, and when he witnesses the desire of wounded soldiers to serve again or hears the gratitude of soldiers of wars past, he’s inspired to do it all over again.
“Maybe you’ve walked 10 miles in the mountains of Afghanistan and had to drag somebody away who got wounded. To come back and sit there and laugh with the guys in the middle of nowhere, that’s the kind of stuff that binds you together,” Kitching says. “It’s tough to explain it, but to come home and have WWII veterans working in USO offices in the airport saying thank you for what you’re doing to protect our way of life and for us to be able to live the way we do, I appreciate being able to serve and protect what we have here.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t adjustments that must be made when he returns home, where wife Shanna is the boss, handling everything from the bills to moving to the rearing of their son.
“I’m in charge when I’m overseas with my platoon. When I’m at home, it’s not the same environment,” Kitching said. “And there’s also the adjustment to understanding that home is a safe environment, and not a place where you have to always be on edge.”
Some deployments are easier than others. For Kitching, the most difficult so far involved the death of a newly married soldier who was killed just one week before he was scheduled to return home.
“That kind of experience stuck with me, and it can stay for a while,” Kitching said.