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A dangerous Afghanistan deployment puts a friendship to the test

Dan Boirum feared the worst when an explosion ripped through a hot August night in southern Afghanistan. He knew it hit one of his closest friends in the Army.

But rather than run to Dan Berchinski’s side, Boirum held back.

He kept busy managing incoming helicopters, telling himself he didn’t want to see “my best friend blown in half, bleeding.”

That moment would haunt Boirum long after both men returned from the war.

“If he had died, he would have died without a friend by him,” Boirum said.

Somehow, he knew he’d have to ask for Berchinski’s forgiveness before he could forgive himself.

“I had a lot of demons from that night,” Boirum said. “I had just seen him. He was 20 feet from me, and I couldn’t go over to him. I couldn’t see him.”

Berchinski and Boirum were both young lieutenants from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They belonged to the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, a 750-soldier unit that plunged into the Taliban heartland in the summer of 2009. Five years ago, the battalion came home to JBLM.

A total of 22 soldiers lost their lives on the deployment. No other Army battalion suffered more fatal casualties in Afghanistan.

The anniversary of the homecoming is a milestone that has inspired many 1-17 veterans and family members to reconnect over social media and at a new JBLM memorial.

For some, old wounds are starting to heal. Soldiers who went through hell are moving on with their lives. They’re taking on new careers in private industry, moving up the ranks of the Army or looking for ways to help their communities as leaders of nonprofits.

“It’s not just where you’ve been but where you plan on going. Life doesn’t end after that deployment,” said Capt. Brian Giroux, who as a platoon leader suffered a serious injury in a blast that crushed his legs and killed two soldiers. He gave himself a goal of earning a master’s degree during his recovery and was able to move into Army logistics, where he serves today.

But for some veterans and their families, the combat tour echoes with each passing anniversary of a friend’s death. Some are carried back to that time by sensory stimuli; the smell of burning plastic can conjure smoldering Army vehicles and other gory scenes.

“The cost of that deployment, as far as I can tell from this standpoint five years after, is forever,” said Amy Bushatz, 30, the wife of an Army captain who survived his tour with the 1-17. “It does get better, but you deal with this forever.”

The battalion arrived in Kandahar province in July 2009, knowing little about the insurgency that had taken root there while the U.S. military was focused on Iraq.

In fact, the soldiers of the 1-17 had been training to fight in Iraq until their orders suddenly changed to Afghanistan a few months before their departure date.

“Nobody knew where we were going,” said retired 1st Sgt. Gene Hicks, 44, of Boise, who was responsible for about 150 of the 1-17’s soldiers in its Alpha Company. “Soldiers want to know as much as they can, and we couldn’t put out information because we didn’t know.”

Most of their casualties would come in their first three months on the ground.

The 1-17’s experience in the Arghandab Valley revealed the strength of an enemy the U.S. continues to fight today. The battalion’s experience persuaded the Army to redesign its 20-ton Stryker vehicles to better withstand the bombs buried in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain.

None of the Stryker brigades that followed the 1-17 and its parent command, the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, would lose as many soldiers. They would benefit from the information gathered by Stryker troops at the front of the Obama administration’s surge of forces in southern Afghanistan.

Those difficult days would forge long-lasting bonds.

“We were all so close,” said Derek MacDougall, 26, a former enlisted infantryman who founded a 1-17 support group on Facebook this year to help his buddies keep in touch. “It wasn’t just my group. It was the whole battalion.”

Many of the battalion mates found ways to move forward after leaving the Army.

In Boise, Hicks earned a master’s degree in social work and is offering counseling to veterans. In Lakewood, another former 1-17 first sergeant, Doug Pfeffer, helped launch Rally Point Six, the nonprofit that connects veterans with jobs.

But moving forward sometimes requires confronting the past.

WALKING INTO TRAGEDY

Dan Boirum, 30, calls the first day of serious fighting for his soldiers in Afghanistan “the worst 36 hours anyone can experience.”

That day — Aug. 18, 2009 — marked the battalion’s first casualties. A mine took the life of Sgt. Troy Tom, 21, a well-liked soldier from New Mexico. Another killed Pfc. Jonathan Yanney, an outgoing 20-year-old from Minnesota.

Both deaths meant soldiers had to spend painful moments searching for body parts and scattered belongings.

Dan Berchinski would be the third casualty that day, but the first to survive his wounds.

Before that day’s patrols, soldiers had already learned that the fast-moving Strykers that had proved so successful in Iraq’s urban environment would not work as well in Afghanistan’s rural terrain.

Berchinski, 31, saw the danger on his first Stryker patrol outside a forward base in early August. Mines buried in dirt roads exploded, disabling two Army vehicles and injuring a soldier.

“We have the Strykers in the country, and on the first day it was immediately apparent we shouldn’t drive our Strykers on the road,” he said.

Instead, the soldiers would move on foot, which posed its own risks. “If you just take enough steps in that country, you will step on something bad,” Berchinski said.

On the night of Tom’s and Yanney’s deaths, Berchinski and Boirum joined 1-17 Bravo Company Commander Capt. James Pope for a huddle where they planned the next day’s operations.

Berchinski walked down a path he had crossed twice that night.

He doesn’t remember anything about the blast that severed his legs.

Pope and other soldiers rushed to him, sustaining him until he could reach better care, first at Kandahar Air Field and then at the Army hospital at Landstuhl Germany.

His peers cheered when they learned he had survived.

Then they put their heads down to keep fighting for the next 11 months.

Berchinski eventually went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where doctors told him “no one with my injury had ever been able to walk in the real world.”

Boirum pressed on as a platoon leader until a bomb struck his Stryker a month later, delivering a concussion with effects that made it difficult for him to work in daylight.

He stayed with the battalion, moving to staff assignments that would let him support soldiers on night missions. In October, the battalion assigned him to its Charlie Company. One of his first tasks was packing the belongings of seven soldiers who were killed in a single attack on a Stryker.

“I was able to stick out the deployment,” he said.

LIFE STILL ‘NOT NORMAL’

After the war, Berchinski committed himself to blazing through his physical recovery at Walter Reed. He emerged three years later walking and ready to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University.

That’s about what his friends expected of him.

“You knew (the bomb) was going to slow Berchinski down three or four steps, but he’d be back. That’s who he is,” Boirum said.

Boirum, meanwhile, got one of his dream jobs in 2011 when the Army sent him to its National Training Center in California as captain and company commander.

His job was to train soldiers making their final preparations for combat at the Army’s massive training grounds in the Mojave Desert. He got to throw every obstacle he could imagine at them.

He knows it’s better that they make mistakes in front of him than at war with lives on the line.

“The only reason I was able to do war games every month, over and over, was that I knew what they were up against, and I wanted them to be ready,” he said.

Yet Boirum continually relived the day Berchinski lost his legs.

On the surface, Boirum appeared to be succeeding in his career and at home. He fell in love back home in Washington state and married Cynthia in September 2011. They planned to start a family.

But he noticed signs of unease. He couldn’t sleep. He’d feel anxious and angry. He lost his temper for no good reason.

“You realize stuff’s not normal and it’s not getting normal,” he said.

Berchinski and Boirum had been close before the deployment, part of a circle of ambitious young officers eager to make their mark in the Army.

Berchinski got to Fort Lewis and the 1-17 by way of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He liked Boirum’s local knowledge as a Seattle native.

They stayed in touch after the war, meeting about once a year with junior officers from their deployment.

In early 2014, Berchinski, at Stanford, realized he was about a day’s drive from Boirum at Fort Irwin in Barstow, Calif. Berchinski made the trip, enjoying a day spent watching his old friend leading soldiers as a company commander.

A FRIEND’S FORGIVENESS

As they drove around the sprawling desert base, Boirum made up his mind to tell Berchinski about his regret for not going to him after the explosion.

“I’ve had some struggles and it relates to your injury,” Boirum told Berchinski.

“I didn’t do anything to help,” he said.

Berchinski didn’t anticipate Boirum’s apology. Until then, Berchinski had no idea that his friend still felt troubled.

“I knew that Dan had been through a lot, but I didn’t want to pry, and I personally have felt like I don’t have the right to ask the other 1-17 soldiers too much because I was there for a month and they were there for a year,” Berchinski said.

Berchinski told his friend that Boirum did the right thing.

After all, the medics would take care of Berchinski; Boirum had to think about three dozen soldiers in his platoon.

“You knew I was done,” Berchinski told Boirum. “You knew that I was going to be taken away by medical evacuation within hours. You were going to be fighting, and you had to be in the right frame of mind. You needed to be in the right frame of mind to take care of your soldiers.”

In September, Boirum followed Berchinsk’s path and went to business school. Boirum returned to the University of Washington, where he did his undergraduate work. He’s interning this summer at Columbia Bank analyzing commercial lending opportunities.

He and Cynthia have a son named Jacob.

He says he rests easier knowing he has his friend’s forgiveness.

Boirum’s feelings about his deployment are still complicated. He doesn’t want to talk about it with civilians. He’d just as soon they think he spent a year playing Xbox on a giant base rather than open up about serving on the front lines through a hard year.

But when he’s around guys who were with him in the Arghandab Valley, “I’m proud, because they knew what it was like. It was a battle. It was something we went through together.”

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