SULLIVAN COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Johnny Heidelberg wasn’t intending to serve another tour in the U.S. Army – then he saw two planes crash into the World Trade Center.
“I thought somebody was joking with me,” Heidelberg recalled. “Then we saw it on TV. I think that night I went home and called my old recruiter and told him I wanted to get back in.”
Heidelberg had a young son at home at the time, making the choice to re-enlist difficult. But it was other sons and daughters he thought of when making that call.
“It was one of those things, you know, I was a bit older and I knew that if I didn’t go, they were going to send someone’s little boy, someone’s 18-year-old child over,” Heidelberg shared. “I thought that if I could go, at least I would take his spot.”
Heidelberg said being thousands of miles away from his family did take a toll.
“You get to make morale calls and you get mail and stuff like that, but it’s, it’s not the same,” Heidelberg shared. “If you’re out on mission or something like that, you know, you really can’t think about it until after. But during your downtime, that’s all you really think about is people back home and what they could be doing or what your children are doing. It’s hard.”
Heidelberg filled several roles while serving in the Army, from chemical and biological warfare specialist to unmanned aerial vehicle operator. He said he learned a lot about Middle East culture while serving in Iraq.
“People don’t understand,” Heidelberg said. “You have running water here. My first tour, they only had electricity for 8 to 10 hours a day. You never, you just can’t believe what you see over there. It’s, it’s a whole different world; it’s culture shock. We’re just so lucky with everything.”
Heidelberg referenced a noticeable difference in the business culture in Iraq versus in the United States.
“We’ve got stores and businesses,” Heidelberg said. “Over there, they sell grain and stuff like that. It’s in piles in the streets, little vendors on the sides of the roads and stuff. It’s nothing really structured.”
Patrick Taylor, also a local Army veteran, served a tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan, reaching the rank of captain. He recalled working closely with the Afghan people.
“I was in support of an SFAT team,” Taylor explained. “So what that is is Security Force Advisory Team. We got to work hand-in-hand with the Afghans as they were preparing to take over the country.”
Taylor remembered fondly many of the Afghan people he met while overseas.
“For the most part, the Afghan people are, you know, just a wonderful people,” Taylor said. “They’re very, very welcoming and they were really wanting to work with us to try to build their country back.”
Taylor added that Afghan culture goes beyond many Americans’ understanding.
“We have, you know, a spot on the map that says Afghanistan,” Taylor explained. “However, the borders and everything that we see aren’t what is actually on the ground; different tribes control different areas.”
Taylor said the recent events in Afghanistan, with the Taliban gaining control again over the country, upset him and led him to wonder what happened to those he met there years ago.
“I worked on several occasions with different Afghan interpreters,” Taylor said. “I also was liaison with the Afghan army and I’ll be honest with you, I wonder what happened to those people whenever everything, everything started to collapse. I wonder if they got out, I wonder if they’re safe.”
Two decades after the tragic 9/11 attacks, with the final American troops just recently removed from Afghanistan, Taylor called back the feeling of pride connected with serving one’s country in the early days of the war.
“When I went in, there was a large way of patriotism going into the service,” Taylor recalled. “A lot of people were very, very willing as a volunteer to go. It felt like a duty because, the Trade Towers and the events of 9/11 had hurt us so much. We had the ability to go serve, to go help protect the country.”
Heidelberg said he wants that patriotism to continue today, as people continue to offer the ultimate sacrifice in wars across the globe.
“One thing they need to understand is when somebody goes to war and they come home, the war is never over for that person,” Heidelberg said. “It’s never over. I mean, we lose people every day. I think that whether or not they believed in what that person was doing, I still believe they should at least support that person individually.”
Taylor echoed Heidelberg’s thoughts, pointing to the servicemen and servicewomen who have given their lives to protect their fellow Americans. He said he wants to see more people work together back on U.S. soil like the members of the Army work together overseas.