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Even though my dad can fly Predators from the outskirts of Vegas, he still has had to go to Iraq to help better integrate the Predators with the ground troops. These trips worry my family because he already has a Purple Heart.

When I was in elementary school, terrorists bombed a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia. The Kobar Towers were torn apart by a semi truck packed full of explosives. It was my dad’s complex. We didn’t know for two weeks whether he was alive. We knew the building had been blown up and we knew Americans died. Later he told me, “There was a river of blood running down the stairs. Everyone was cut up.” A few minutes before detonation, he’d been on his way to the other tower for a briefing. He felt sick to his stomach so he went back to his room. That’s when the blast went off. Glass flew everywhere, slicing skin. His head and back lacerated from the shards, he had barely avoided death. A lot of people died in the conference room my dad should have been in — the blast affected that building more than the one where his room was. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel lost their lives as a result of the attack. That was more than 14 years ago, but there’s not a week that goes by where I don’t think about it. On his more recent stint in Iraq, his barracks were attacked again. Of course, he didn’t tell us this right away. He knew how much the Kobar Towers bombing had shaken us up, but a couple of weeks after his return to the States he casually said, “Yeah, they were shooting mortars at our base. Not a big deal.” A mortar can easily blow your head off.

I hate the people responsible for almost killing my dad. Those same bastards caused my family to lose our house after 9/11 because he was laid off from his airline pilot job. He went back to the Air Force. It’s unclear whether his motivation was to fight or to support his family. Most likely both.

I would enjoy shooting a few extremists, yet I’m happier improving myself academically and individually. No matter how many of them we kill, they will keep coming back. You can’t fight a war on religion because for extremists, beliefs overpower logic. I don’t think either my dad or I want revenge. We would rather do something positive for our family and country. My dad does this by gathering life-saving intelligence on the front lines. Once I get my UCSD degree, I’ll have a better opportunity to change lives as well. Maybe one day I can help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder or create new medicines for combat injuries.

∗ ∗ ∗

My dad is now retired and will never have to go back to the sandbox again, I hope. He’s a military contractor for the company that makes the MQ-1. I still consider myself a Vegas person, but these days I appreciate my old city with a different perspective. Californians don’t pay much attention to the possible consequences of revelry in the desert, and I got caught up in that mindset during that weekend with my friends. In San Diego, you can’t drink on the beach or anywhere outdoors, while on the Strip you can stroll down the street sipping on a 40. The Strip is an entirely different world compared to the city proper. While there, I almost forgot that my old house was only 15 minutes away.

I found one of my San Diego friends wandering the casino floor at 5:30 in the morning. He was disheveled, clearly inebriated and happy.

“Man, I love this place,” he said.

“Where have you been?”

“I don’t even know how I got here, but I’m tired.” He started to laugh. I grinned because as a tourist he only knows half the story. Las Vegas Mayor and ex-mob defense lawyer Oscar Goodman says: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But what happens in Afghanistan stays digitally recorded on the hard drives of Creech AFB computers.

I still wonder what kind of person I would be had I stayed at the U.S. Naval Academy. I certainly wouldn’t have as much debt as I do, and I would have never disappointed my dad. Maybe I would have had a chance to launch a cruise missile at some al-Qaeda members. Despite these occasional thoughts, I’m glad I’m in San Diego. It was the first major decision I made where I ignored the opinions of my loved ones, relying instead on freedom and personal choice.

After returning from the Vegas trip, one afternoon on my way home from school I got in the heinous 4:00 p.m. traffic on Genesee. I took a moment to reflect on the efforts of our military and how I might have been out there fighting with them. These men and women work to keep us safe while we play in the surf. They give up their freedom while we stretch our liberty to the limit in Las Vegas. I never take this for granted.

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Comments

sdapothecarygirl March 4, 2011 @ 9:14 a.m.

Great Job Mr. Neal! My brother has been deployed with the Air Force twice so far. He celebrated his 21st birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas in the sandbox. Your story helped me understand more of what he goes through out there.

Thank you for sharing your Dad's heroic stories, as well as your struggle with making life choices at the cost of disappointing those you love most. The hard work of carving out your own path in life makes it your own (and more interesting to read about!) As I read about your decision, I winced as I thought about the repercussions in a military family...I hope they are proud of you for writing this story. P.S.- The scene with the bouncer was one of my favorite moments!

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lneal Aug. 19, 2012 @ 8:29 p.m.

Thank you for reading and taking the time out of your day to comment on my story! I'm grateful that it provided you with some entertainment and understanding. My Dad is a true hero who will be proud of me no matter what. It has taken a long time for me to accept that idea. I still don't know why that bouncer let us in. I apologize for taking so long to reply.

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Ponzi March 5, 2011 @ 7:36 a.m.

In 1985 I drove to Las Vegas from La Mesa in 3 hours. I owned a 1984 Porsche 911 Carrera and took a friend for the ride on a bet. I left La Mesa at 2:30 a.m. and arrived at the Las Vegas city limits around 5:30 a.m. as the sun was rising.

Most of the trip I was driving at speeds of 130 to 140 MPH. I didn’t bother scanning my rear-view mirror because I had to keep my eye on the road ahead. If something is in your rear-view mirror at that speed, it’s too late anyway.

The thing I recall most is that on the occasions when I would slow to 65 MPH, it felt like you could open the door and walk out. The sensation of being accustomed to driving at nearly three times that speed for so long make it feel like you are almost going at a crawl at 65.

After our weekend, I drove home and it took about 5 hours.

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lneal Aug. 19, 2012 @ 8:35 p.m.

Wow, that sounds like an incredible trip! I made that journey in a 2000 Buick LeSabre. I couldn't imagine how intense it would be to do it in a Porshe. Thank you for reading my story and for sharing your experience!

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Ponzi March 5, 2011 @ 8:10 a.m.

Mr. Neal, I had to make a similar, although not as significant decision as you. In high school ROTC, I had earned the rank of Cadet Major and position of Battalion S-1. I was offered a partial ROTC college scholarship. This was in the mid-70’s just as the unpopular Vietnam War was winding down(being lost). I had gone through four difficult years of high school being teased, taunted and assaulted by the rest of the long haired students who hated the “Rot-C” cadets. I had to have short hair while the fashion was long and wear a uniform that was a spitting image of the U.S. Army.

When it came time to make that fateful decision of going to college with a promise to serve in the Army, I decided not to. I felt I could do better than the service and start my own business or something. So I was focused on the pay and the loss of personal freedom.

Although I don’t regret where I am in my life, I do in a way regret not going for the Army scholarship and serving in the service. Although they say life is short, it also is long. When you’re my age and you look back, 15 years goes by fast. Of course I would not have had to serve 15 years if I didn’t want to. I feel in your case you probably would not have had to serve 15 years either, just promise to do so if they needed you. You would probably wind up in the reserve after six years.

I say this because I have friends who did go in the service. It made them responsible and it opened up many job opportunities after they went reserve. Some have pensions and now have second careers. Many used the GI Bill to get their educations later (those that enlisted after high school). All-in-all I regret not accepting the opportunity to serve my country. I can only say that I was influenced by the number of casualties the Vietnam War had as well as the mistreatment of the military who came home from that war. Today we support and celebrate our service people, but back then they were reviled by many in our nation. It was a sad chapter of United States history.

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SurfPuppy619 March 5, 2011 @ 8:50 a.m.

Today we support and celebrate our service people, but back then they were reviled by many in our nation

I was in grade school during the Vietnam war, and I have always wondered why OUR people turned against the soldiers who were only doing their job, often against their own beliefs and values, putting the country first-I will never understand that.

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Visduh March 5, 2011 @ 10:36 a.m.

I've tried to append this comment to those of Ponzi and SurfPup, and it will not open the text box. It was indeed a bad time for the nation, and the way too many people treated the folks in uniform was a disgrace. One of the sorest aspects of the whole time was the way WWII vets ("The Greatest Generation") treated the Vietnam vets, who in many cases were their own sons. Today there is an organization of Vietnam and Vietnam-era vets called, not surprisingly, The Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. One of its founding precepts is simply stated: Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.

In the ensuing years, I've often wondered why ANYONE was willing to don the uniform of the US armed forces after that wretched episode. Not only were the vets snubbed and shunned, more than a few were actively abused because of their service, but there was never a satisfactory resolution of the POW situation. For those who might have missed it, the US government finally admitted that some were "left behind" at the time of the signing of the Paris Peace accords in 1973. Later on it was also admitted that the agency charged with investigating and recovering POW's, the Defense Intelligence Agency, had adopted a policy that any/all sightings or evidence of POW's still alive in S E Asia were bogus.

We can thank the news media for much of the negative coverage of the war, and we must give special thanks to "the most trusted man in America", Walter Cronkite, for turning Americans against their own young and often reluctant warriors. Then people like Jane Fonda and John Kerry didn't help a bit.

Before I sign off, I need to mention to Ponzi that his service obligation if he had accepted an Army ROTC scholarship would have been four years. But during the period he mentions, there is a strong possibility that he would not have been called to serve at all because the Army was turning out more lieutenants that in needed during a period of peace and a small force. Even some West Point grads were being released to civilian life during the 70's.

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Ponzi March 5, 2011 @ 10:03 p.m.

Visduh, thank you for bringing up those excellent points. As a historian, I like to point out that the Vietnam War was the “Television War.” Kennedy was the “Television Candidate.” World War II was the “Radio War.” Americans learned about the atrocities of war by radio broadcast and later, in the 1960’s by daily newsreels of the horrors occurring in the jungles and villages on Vietnam. When I was a kid in the 60’s and 70’s I was not only treated to watching Neal Armstrong walk on the moon, I witnessed the nightly news filled with helicopter door gunner skirmishes and napalm strikes all in Chroma-color on our family TV.

Even though our video technology is so much more sophisticated, the wars these days are not “TV Wars.” And I wonder why? The horrors that mobilized the 60’s peace movement were fueled by the frustration with the body bags and senseless killing of innocent villagers in Vietnam. The My Lai Massacre topped the list of war wrongdoings on the part of US forces.

I just wonder how our society would react or respond today if they were to have to witness a “Hurt Locker” drama every single day on television?

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JohnnyJ March 13, 2011 @ 2:55 p.m.

STORY SHOULD HAVE MORE DETAIL ABOUT THE DEBAUCHERY IN VEGAS

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Joe Poutous March 13, 2011 @ 4:16 p.m.

good story... not as epic as Fear and Loathing, but good.

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dmlocal March 25, 2011 @ 6:51 p.m.

To the writer, great story, and I'd bet your dad loves you unconditionally regardless of not joining the service, because it takes a huge level of commitment, and it's not for everyone. He knows you've been in support of what and who he is. And tell your dad thanks for me as well. My brother joined the Naval Academy and served in over Kosovo. I couldn't sign up for what he did. Huge respect for what our military does, and who they are. Surfpup, couldn't have said it any better. Right on.

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