James returns to Atmore in time for Christmas
By By James Crawford
On Friday, the James family of Atmore received its Christmas wish a bit earlier than most with the return of their 21-year-old son, Army Spc. 4 Ryan James, from Afghanistan for a Christmas leave.
Arriving in dress uniform, James was immediately embraced by his mother, wearing an American flag adorned sweater, and his father when he stepped off the plane at the Pensacola Regional Airport. The 2000 Escambia County High graduate and football player was tearfully surrounded by a dozen or so loved ones, including his 17-year-old sister Heather, and friends as he took in a breath of home after being halfway around the world for so long.
Ryan, a forward observer with the 82nd Airborne 1st-319th Field Artillery Division of the United States Army, spent his 21st birthday in a foreign land, but now has two weeks at home for Christmas and couldn't be happier.
"I'm just relaxing, spending a lot of time with family and going to see friends," James said. "I want to go around and thank the people who sent packages and notes saying thank you for what you're doing."
Those in line for thanks include Mrs. Gayles' Huxford Elementary class who sent the young soldier letters of praise. "The letters were funny and sentimental," James said. "First Baptist and Brooks Memorial sent care packages and I want to thank them for that."
James originally started his military career in the National Guard after a bit of fatherly advice, serving for about 18 months before turning to active duty on July 5, 2001, shortly before the attacks on the World Trade Towers. "Dad helped me out with that. He said to try the National Guard and see if you like it. I always wanted to go in (the regular forces), so I asked my National Guard commander if I could transfer to active duty and he said yes," James said. "I like the environment of the military. It's real exciting and you have excellent benefits. You also get in the best shape of your life," James said.
His father's sage advice comes from experience. The elder John James saw action himself in Vietnam, serving in 1970 through 1971 at Hawk Hill, just outside of Chu Lien. "I was supposed to be a forward observer as well, but in Vietnam you might go over there for one thing and end up something completely else. It just depended on where they needed you," the elder James said.
The younger James' unit is designated to respond in an 18-hour cycle, which means his unit can reach anywhere in the world in just 18 hours after being given orders. He might literally find out where he's heading only four hours before he leaves. "Your bags have to stay packed at all time," James said.
Stationed at Tarnak Farms on the outskirts of Kandahar in an abandoned al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, the first such training camp to be set up by the terrorist organization, James spends his time preparing advanced strike plans for possible target zones in which he might order in air strikes or artillery to cover infantry forces. "I go out either with or before the infantry and find the area where the enemy has set up strike zones and assess a strike plan," James said.
His work schedule consists of approximately 18 hours on or 12 hours off, seven days per week, with no breaks and very little personal time. "If you want personal time, you take it out of sleep time," James said.
According to James, his job depends on mission intelligence at the time. A known area of interest is identified and his unit will go out to assess the situation and put together a plan of attack. "In Afghanistan, we went out in helicopters using night vision goggles," James said.
The desert is a stark contrast to his hometown of Atmore, according to James. The areas he's seen, including Kandahar, Bagram Air Base and the border lands of Pakistan have been rough and rocky, with little or no vegetation. "I've pretty much been everywhere and most of the terrain looks the same," James said.
For his 21st birthday, James spent the day building bunkers for mortar systems in the searing heat of the desert, feeling every bit of his age by the end of the day. "I stacked 10 to 15,000 sand bags," James said. "During the summer, it's really hot. It will reach 120 degrees easy and the sand is like a powder, it gets into everything. The sandstorms are really powerful there. It can block out the sun," James said.
The heat isn't the only problem with the desert though; the temperature can be as formidable as the enemy according to James, referring to the highs and lows. "It got down to about 10 degrees one night. It's something you have to get used to."
James' unit does have a bit of a break with air-conditioned tents and fresh water flown in giant containers called blevits. "We're lucky enough to have air conditioned tents and shower facilities. Which are good in the summer but not so good in the winter, because the water isn't heated," James said.
On a lighter note, James has had a chance to sample some of the local foods, including a common bread known as Pita bread. "It's baked and decorated with weird designs," James said. The bread was a break from the everyday regimen of sea rations, called "sea rats" by James. "They are awful. It's like food in a tin can."
As he sits in the chair next to his proud father who looks on, James a patch that he wears on his right arm. Two large A's, signifying All American according to James, a gesture that embodies his feelings of patriotism.
James returns to Fort Bragg, near Fayetville, N.C., after his break to begin a new mission cycle, where he'll learn of his new orders which could include a trip back to Afghanistan or anywhere on the world, possibly even Iraq. "The war on terrorism will probably last a few more years until we're sure they Afghan forces can hold their own," James said. "But at this point, everything is looking toward Saddam."