‘Who else would you want to come home to?’ medic asks
ADAM ASHTON AND KATHLEEN MERRYMAN
Sgt. Jeremy Spradlin didn’t want to go to Afghanistan this time.
He’s on his sixth overseas deployment of the past 11 years. The time away from family is taking its toll in moments he’s missing with his teenage son and mornings he’s waking up without his wife of 16 years.
Spradlin, a Stryker medic from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is on his third combat tour to Afghanistan. The last trip shook his head with five close explosions from enemy bombs. One resulted in a traumatic brain injury that took six months of treatment and a year of checkups to heal.
This is his fifth combat mission since 2001. Add in a one-year assignment in South Korea and it makes for a nonstop cycle of departures and returns since he enlisted in 2000.
He’s proud of his work taking care of soldiers, and he gets excited when his platoon in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division wins a firefight.
But he’s no longer new to combat and the sense of life-and-death accomplishment it can bring. He proved his mettle years ago. Now he’s more cautious; he lets younger medics go out on missions he would have taken in the past.
The most important thing for him is getting home to his wife, Becky, and 15-year-old son, Mason.
“It’s insane. It really is,” said Spradlin, 38, from his base in southern Afghanistan. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s my job. I love the Army and I love helping the guys.”
He belongs to a minority of soldiers who have deployed four or more times. Less than 10 percent of all current active-duty U.S. soldiers have left home so often. Spradlin’s Stryker brigade sent 3,900 soldiers to Afghanistan for this year’s deployment. Just 60 had been on four or more deployments before they left the base south of Tacoma.
Spradlin’s family loves him for his service, but they’re sacrificing, too. Spradlin’s job has taken him away for more than a third of his son’s life. Wife Becky geared down her own nursing career and enlisted the help of her mother to keep the family moving forward during her husband’s long absences.
“It’s hard not have a fatherly figure,” Mason said at the family’s home last month. He keeps his mind off his dad by focusing on his classes at Harrison Preparatory School in Lakewood and on his competitive equestrian events.
When Becky and Jeremy met, she managed a carpet store and he worked for her.
They began work on a better life. She went to nursing school. He trained to be an emergency medical technician so he could follow that path into the Army.
He knew his service would take him away from family for long stretches. Back then, he anticipated extended training missions and possibly a couple of combat deployments over the course of a career.
In 2000, their dual-career household looked like a stable choice. Since 2001, two wars have changed all that.
His first deployment to Kosovo in 2001 wasn’t too stressful. Things picked up when he participated in the first wave of the Iraq invasion in 2003 with the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga. He was in Kuwait as American rockets sailed into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
That deployment was intense as his division relentlessly pushed north. He came home in 2004 and slept on the floor of his home for a month because he wasn’t used to a bed.
“I was scared,” he said.
So was his family.
“We didn’t hear from him for months,” Becky said. “The only way we heard anything was on CNN.”
While they watched the war begin, Spradlin filmed it so he could tell them how it really was when he saw them again.
“He took a video camera,” Becky said. “They were on a two-man ambulance on a tank, and he would film as they were going across the desert. He played it for us 15 months later. The Iraqis were shelling the tanks. It was surreal.”
His next deployment took him to southern Afghanistan in 2004 with Lewis-McChord’s 864th Engineer Battalion. He served in now-hostile areas of Kandahar and Zabul provinces, but the Afghan insurgency had not yet taken root and his year passed easily.
Spradlin returned to Afghanistan with the same engineer battalion in 2006 for his most demanding tour. He served in Paktika province near the Pakistan border and regularly came under fire.
“We got mortared, oh my gosh, I couldn’t think how many times. I spent the night in a bunker,” he remembered.
A man wearing a suicide vest killed a close friend of Spradlin’s. A lieutenant Spradlin respected was killed in combat. That tour was the one where he was exposed to multiple roadside bombs.
He came back to the South Sound with anger issues and mood swings. Becky noticed he seemed a little off and encouraged him to see a doctor. They treated him for a mild traumatic brain injury and gave him medication for six months to help him level off. Doctors checked up on him for another year. He has recovered.
He’s not as gung-ho as before. He’s more comfortable serving his Lewis-McChord cavalry troop at Forward Operating Base Wolverine in Zabul province, where he runs its aid station instead of chasing missions.
“I’m kind of nervous after so many deployments,” he said. “You think, ‘when is my number going to come up?’
“Every time I step out of the wire, I know it could be my day.”
His wife and son, even his mother-in-law, feel the same way. But only Becky’s mom, Joyce Hogeland, says it aloud.
“You’d think he’s served his time,” she said.
Where any misstep could be fatal, one that results in minor injuries is almost a relief.
On April 17, Becky’s phone rang while she was on an errand. A minute into the conversation, she gasped.
“Omigosh! Are you all right? No stitches or anything? You sure you’re all right?”
Away from post, he’d fallen six feet off a truck, twisted his ankle, cut his arm and bumped his head. He decided not to get stitches.
Back home, Becky told Mason and her mother about the fall.
Mason depends on phone calls to stay close to his father. He dreads them, too.
“Oh man, am I going to get that call?” he said. “Then, oh, he’s safe. Communication with him pushes me forward.”
So does the life he’s building around his father’s absence.
“Horses preoccupy my mind,” Mason said. “Horses and my dogs.”
He started riding in 2006 when his mother gave him Jester, an Arabian rescued from the Enumclaw auction.
He and his mother have bought horses to match his advancing skills, and they travel with them to shows around the Northwest. Mason trains at Opus Arabians in Graham, where Richard Galarza’s family has welcomed him.
“His horse trainer has really stepped up,” Becky said. “They talk about girls, and what it is to be a 15-year-old boy. They have a room for him in Graham.”
Being the spouse of a frequently deployed soldier is an intense life, and it has pared away at Becky’s career and independence.
She worked 12-hour shifts as a trauma nurse at Madigan Army Medical Center for four years. In 2008 she switched to an agency where she can build her own schedule. Her mother moved across the country to join them during Spradlin’s first deployment to Afghanistan.
The family does not seek out the various Army support groups around Lewis-McChord. They’re too busy, and that schedule is a form of support in itself. Between work, school, horses and dogs, there’s not much space for worry.
Friends they’ve met through those activities have become their support network. The demands of life give them purpose.
“You run into stumble bumps, but you don’t stop,” Mason said.
Sgt. Spradlin wants to see Mason’s accomplishments in person and he regrets missing so many of his son’s horse shows. The family keeps Dad involved as much as they can.
“He’s excited to hear what we do. We videotape things and post photos and videoclips on Facebook,” Becky said. “I think he’s happy to see all that. I think he’s happy for us that we keep doing our thing.”
Mother-in-law Hogeland sees a bittersweet angle to it.
“Mason and Becky have done so many of these things when Jeremy has been over there,” Hogeland said. “When he comes home, he feels left out.”
But Becky folds him right in. He’s always tired, so the family usually makes him rest, then catch up with them. He snowboards with Mason. He goes to the horse shows. There’s no big fuss.
Last time, he went on a 16-hour horse-buying trip as soon as the Army let him loose.
“We stay with our routine and swallow him up and take him with us. I find if we don’t make a huge big deal about it, it’s easier on him,” she said.
For this deployment, Mason told his dad he didn’t want him to spend another year at war. Becky has been supportive but worries her husband could be endangered by American missteps, such as the February accidental burning of Islamic holy books at Bagram Air Field and the March massacre of 17 civilians at the alleged hands of a soldier from Spradlin’s brigade.
He’s careful, and his combat experience earns him respect from junior medics.
He and Becky talk every day.
“We have a very strong family bond after all these deployments,” he said.
Sometimes junior soldiers ask him how he keeps his marriage together. He praises his wife and wears his heart on his sleeve.
“You have to have that thrive to be with your wife, to be with your woman every day,” he said. “Who else would you really want to come home to?”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677