Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Hailey Marine completes 4-year tour

Stavros saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq

Express Staff Writer

Cpl. Nick Stavros, one of 10 Marines from the Wood River High School 2001 graduating class, greets his brother Ryan at Friedman Memorial Airport Friday, the day he finished four years of active duty, including combat duty in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq. Photo by Willy Cook

The first time around, 2001 Wood River High School graduate Cpl. Nick Stavros crossed the Iraq border as a Marine Corps liberator. Trained as a machine-gunner, Stavros raced across the empty Iraq desert March 20, 2003, in the gun turret of a Humvee, after Saddam Hussein disregarded President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to step down as the leader of Iraq. Stavros arrived in the city of al-Nasiriyah to face the hornet's nest of modern urban combat in the ongoing U.S.-led war on terror.

"That's the city where Jessica Lynch got captured," Stavros said, adding that a U.S. sympathizer handed his infantry unit, the 2nd Combat 8th Marines, a note that helped lead to the rescue of the 19-year-old West Virginian soldier in a commando raid on April 2, 2003. Stavros said his unit staged a diversion while Lynch was rescued from Saddam Hospital.

"I don't think a round was fired in the hospital," he said in an interview Tuesday, after his first weekend as an inactive veteran in four years. Stavros still faces four years of inactive reserve duty. He could be called up at any time if the United States calls for any future troop buildup similar to the call-up prior to the invasion of Iraq. He said he will continue to stay in shape in case the call comes.

Stavros' path as a military volunteer began in November 2001, when the then 18-year-old began 13 weeks of boot camp in San Diego, Calif., followed by a 10-day leave in Hailey with his family and another eight weeks of training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. More training continued that year in Spain with the Spanish Army.

Stavros then returned to Bridgeport, Calif., in September 2002 for mountain warfare training that would come in handy when he shipped off to Afghanistan a year later.

However, by January 2003 Stavros was aboard the U.S.S. Saipan shipping off with two more Marine units for Kuwait. Once there, he was in the company of 5,000 Marines who were off-loaded in helicopters. Five weeks of desert training followed, including chemical warfare training because Iraq was allegedly storing illegal weapons of mass destruction.

"A chemical attack was my greatest fear going in," Stavros said.

Stavros trained in a chemical suit and during his time in Iraq he carried a gas mask at all times.

"I was relieved to get out of al-Nasiriyah," he said. When Lynch was captured 11 soldiers were killed. "We were listening on the radio and (reading intelligence) reports. That was a hostile place."

Stavros' next stop with his MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) in the city of al-Diwaniya was quieter. Daily tasks involved making "presence patrols" to show the Iraqi people that U.S. forces were in the country.

Then, in the city of al-Kut, Stavros said he experienced rounds fired at his unit during riots, but he said his unit was never needed in Baghdad. In late May 2003, Stavros returned to North Carolina via Kuwait and enjoyed another leave with his family that summer.

In September he was called up for duty in Afghanistan, which included border patrols in Asadabad on the border with Pakistan, after making a convoy from Bagram Air Base in Kabul.

"Everything happened by borders ... IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), ambushes, rocket attacks," Stavros said. As the eyes and ears as a Humvee gunner, he saw other vehicles blown up and soldiers get injured, but his section (four Humvees traveling together) came through unscathed. "You don't know where (IEDs) are. You are just driving along and they go off. We kind of lucked out, I guess.

"Combat is not pretty. There are things you shouldn't have to see," he added.

In Afghanistan, Stavros said he saw a soldier who was hit in the neck with shrapnel and another who had his leg blown off. "It's not easy to see that. But, you don't let it get to you. You have a job to do. Afterwards you reflect on it."

Stavros said that although he came through his combat experiences without any memorable scrapes, he did dole out some punishment doing his job detaining suspected terrorists.

"We did get in some hairy situations. But, all my buddies were there to do a job. They were pretty level-headed," Stavros said, hopeful that one day Osama bin Laden will be captured by U.S. forces. "We need answers. You do what you've got to do. We need to find out as much as we can to stop this terrorism problem that is going on in the world."

Armed with comparative experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan (Stavros returned for a second tour in Iraq after some urban warfare training with the Israeli Army along the border of the Gaza Strip in March), Stavros said as a Marine he discussed U.S. foreign policy with his buddies.

"We did talk about what is going on in the world," he said, explaining that he has struggled with the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. "Afghanistan, no. I know exactly why we went in—because of 9/11. In Iraq, I think we could have waited. We probably should have waited until Afghanistan was over. Now we're kind of in some deep shit—excuse my language. We weren't expecting what's going on now. We're not fighting conventional forces anymore. Terrorists have no rules. We have to go by the Geneva Conventions. We wear uniforms. They look like civilians. It's all urban now, all city stuff. It's real scary."

The Marine Corps, which is known for its adaptability to fight by land, sea or air at any time, has also had to adjust to the new enemy in the war on terror, Stavros said. Sometimes, four vehicle sections are broken into two vehicle groups.

"You never go in alone," he said. Stavros added that when he returned to Iraq this year he traveled with the 26th MEU, which was "Special Operations Capable," and during their stop in Israel the unit trained in a mock city environment. "They're pretty good at urban fighting."

Staging in Kuwait for his second trip to Iraq, Stavros said his unit actually unloaded twice from the U.S.S. Ashland before they finally got the call to patrol the Iraq border with Saudi Arabia for foreign terrorists trying to enter the country.

When Stavros finally returned to Iraq in July he said that the highest temperature he experienced was 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

"That was real hot," he said, but added that his unit only stayed for a month because most of the patrol activity was on the Syrian border and his unit shipped back to the U.S. in August. Stavros said he has been in North Carolina awaiting his discharge since the end of September. "I was ready to be out."

Stavros said his Marine Corps and combat experience has changed his life, but he might not recommend it for his own children.

"It depends on what is happening in the world," he said, adding that for him it was a positive experience. "I'm a totally different person from my high school days. I was a typical high school kid -- going out partying. I started getting in a lot of trouble doing stuff I shouldn't do. The Marines really straightened me out. I grew up real quick."

Stavros is one of 10 2001 Wood River High School graduates who joined the Marines.

"The recruiter must have done his job," he said.

Four of the graduates are serving until March, but the rest of the crew, who all knew each other, finished their active duty earlier this year, Stavros said.

"I would like to thank all the people who have been supportive in this country and in this valley. That helps your morale when you have people who are supportive," Stavros said, explaining that he understands people who are against the nation's war on terror. "You don't have to believe in war or support the war, but support the people who are fighting. It's a tough job and we volunteered to do it."

During his time on inactive reserve status, Stavros hopes to begin training as a firefighter, a career path he said he would have pursued if he hadn't joined the Marines, and he may also take advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill and begin a college education.

In the meantime, he will be enjoying the holiday season with his family and watching the news.

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