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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

New Day, New Mission: Battle-Tested GIs Eye Jobs Out Of War Zone


July 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved.

Fort Rucker, Ala. --- Last year at this time, Army Staff Sgt. Carlos Hernandez was battling boredom, 120-degree temperatures and Iraqi insurgents as a tank gunner in Fallujah.

Now, Warrant Officer 1 Hernandez is about to embark on a yearlong battle with books, the basics of aerodynamics and the complexities of flying Army helicopters.

For Hernandez, 28, it is another step in a lifelong dream to fly. It is also an assignment that will keep him out of Iraq for at least a year.

Hernandez is among a group of senior enlisted soldiers who, during the invasion of Iraq, were integral parts of the 3rd Infantry Division's Charlie Co. of Task Force 1-64. But since their return to the United States last August, about a half-dozen have moved on to other jobs that will spare them a quick return to the war zone.

The division has been home less than a year but is scheduled to redeploy either late this year or early next year because the military is stretched thin trying to keep pace with demands in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army is even calling up more than 5,500 Individual Ready Reserve soldiers who have completed their active-duty obligations but not their overall service commitment of eight years. It is the first time since the Persian Gulf War that IRR soldiers have been activated.

Even some of the junior soldiers in Charlie Co. have taken steps to avoid being redeployed to Iraq soon after their return. Spec. Fausto Trivino, a native of Ecuador, recently re-enlisted in order to get his choice of duty stations. He chose Germany, where he will spend the next year with his wife and 16-month-old daughter, who was born just before the start of the war.

Some of the former Charlie Co. soldiers had new jobs lined up before they left Iraq. Others with young families decided to seek duties elsewhere so they could spend more time at home before heading back overseas.

And some, like Hernandez, wanted a new challenge.

"As a tanker, I proved myself in that arena. Now, I want to do something else," said Hernandez, a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico.

Awarded the Bronze Star with "V" device for valor in combat, Hernandez and his Charlie Co. buddies were at the center of the division's battle to Baghdad..

In the initial foray by U.S. forces into Baghdad on April 5, 2003, Hernandez ended up riding on top of one tank firing a machine gun at enemy forces while under heavy fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

On Thursday, Hernandez was among 44 former enlisted soldiers who graduated from Warrant Officer Candidate School at this Army aviation training center in southeastern Alabama. Warrant officers are specialists and experts in particular fields. Many helicopter pilots are warrant officers. A warrant officer does not become a commissioned officer until the next rank, chief warrant officer 2.

Still, Hernandez will be afforded all the salutes and respect of a West Point grad.

"Instead of being a [noncommissioned officer] responsible for just a few people, now I'm the officer in charge of things. What happens in my unit will be my responsibility so I have to make my decisions a lot more carefully," he said.

Staff Sgt. Germell Milton, another Charlie Co. soldier, is scheduled to graduate from Warrant Officer Candidate School in about two weeks and will also go on to helicopter flight training.

For other Charlie Co. soldiers, the change has not been nearly as dramatic.

Staff Sgt. Jason Diaz, a tank commander who was awarded the Silver Star for combat bravery in Iraq, is now a trainer at the Army's armor center at Fort Knox, Ky. So, too, are Sgt. 1st Class Ray White and Staff Sgt. Randy Pinkston.

Sgt. 1st Class Brett Waterhouse was scheduled to go to West Point to teach young cadets last fall. But the unit's delayed return from Iraq prevented him from getting there until February. He now teaches Military Science 101, "Introduction to the Army" and "Introduction to Warfighting" to freshmen cadets.

For Hernandez's wife, Kimberly, having an officer and a gentleman for a husband is second to having a husband around the house for a while. Hernandez begins flight training later this month and will be stationed at Fort Rucker for the duration. His wife and two children have joined him.

"I get him at home for nine months to a year and that's something that's never happened since we've been married," she said.

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