Two years ago Taylor Kraft was a high school senior, living on main street in the small northeast Nebraska town of Verdigre. A couple hours to the southeast, Nicole Miller was a farm girl finishing her senior year at Dodge High School.
Life's different now for these two Nebraskans barely removed from their teenage years. Both work and live in Iraq. Specifically Camp Adder in southern Iraq, deployed as part of the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, also called the Pike Brigade. They're two of the youngest among the 350 Nebraskans who are part of this mission. Specialist Kraft celebrated his 20th birthday in Iraq, where he spends his days as a radio and telephone operator in a large command post building with lines of desks and computers.
"We start at seven and usually the morning is filled with briefings that we have to set up slides for," Kraft says. "And then, throughout the day, it's just making sure the generator is fueled. Just regular day-to-day tasks to keep everything in line."
Kraft joined the National Guard during his junior year of high school, influenced by family that includes two step brothers in the Marines and a step father who was in the National Guard. "Mainly my step-dad," Kraft says. "He had all these great stories of all the people he's met, all the things he did while he was deployed. And I talked to a recruiter who has a family friend and he told me all the benefits about how it pays for college and I figured that would help out a lot."
Specialist Miller also enlisted as a high school student, right at the start of her senior year. She says it felt like the right thing to do because of educational benefits and the chance to serve her country. A two-year college first option in her contract meant she didn't have to deploy this time, but she waived that to go to Iraq with her unit.
"I thought that would make me a better leader and my family wasn't exactly happy with that choice," Miller says, "but they've come around and they're very supportive of me and everything I'm doing."
She's a supply specialist, dealing with orders for things like clothing and ammunition. In her free time she works out twice a day and takes online classes. Miller says her living quarters are a lot like a dorm room. "It's about a 12 by 12 room," she says. "Two beds and two wall lockers. I have a roommate. I share it with one other roommate. I have Internet connection and sometimes the electricity goes out, but other than that, it's pretty good and right outside of our two walls, we have our bathrooms and our showers."
It's an environment that can be overwhelming. The kind of place where 20-year-olds grow-up quickly. "At first, it was kind of a shock, especially going to Basic Training just being really young and not knowing much," Miller says. It's definitely an experience when you come from a small town and you meet a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds and ethnicities and from so many different places."
Phil Perrone understands. The Omaha native also joined the Guard when he was 18. Thirty-two years of service later he's in Iraq on his second overseas deployment. Perrone says one of the main reasons he's stayed in as an enlisted soldier for so long is to help younger soldiers. Troop welfare is a big part of his job as Pike Brigade's Command Sgt. Major.
"This deployment stares you right in the face and you never know what's gonna come down your path," Perone says. "These soldiers were well-trained and equipped before we left Lincoln in July, we left Lincoln July 11, I believe. And if you took a snapshot of their personalities and their maturity level then and they were mature, and took it now, I think you'd realize that they're leaps and bounds ahead of where they were and it's mainly because when you're over here, it's you know, it's reality."
Perrone says there's help for younger soldiers. Formally, with higher ranking soldiers responsible for keeping an eye on those they command. Informally, because the average age of a Nebraska Army National Guard soldier is slightly less than 30 which means in any unit there is experience for young soldiers like Taylor Kraft to tap into.
"You always have someone to look forward to talking to in the day because of their experience in the military," Kraft says. "They can give you little secrets here and there about how to get through the days. Just like if you're getting yelled at, just say 'Roger.' And go on with the day. Don't let it get under your skin like when you're in Basic Training."
Miller says a lot of her fellow soldiers have children her age. "So we have a lot of like people that are very motherly or fatherly to you," Miller says, "so you can always look to them for guidance and obviously joking around, they talk about music and music that we've never seen or heard of because they were back in the 80s and you're like what? I was never even been born then."
Both Taylor Kraft and Nicole Miller say deployment has changed them. Kraft says he's more outgoing, and will bring a more mature focus when he resumes classes at Hastings College. "I think it's going to help shape the way the rest of my life goes," says Kraft, who hasn't decided whether he will re-enlist once his military contract expires.
Miller, who wants to spend at least 20 years in the Guard, says she now has more ambition and life perspective than some of her high school classmates. And both will return in a few months with something else that usually comes with going to war.
"I think the bonds that I've made with the people that are here will definitely stay with me," Miller says."
NEBRASKANS BEFORE THE BATTLE: SOLDIERS AND FAMILIES PREPARE FOR WAR
Learn how Nebraska soldiers currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan trained for their missions. Visit the web site for the NET News "Before the Battle" documentary project.