updated 12/18/2005 8:42:17 PM ET 2005-12-19T01:42:17
EXCERPT

For more than a century young men and now women from Glens Falls, N.Y. have trained as part-time soldiers. The National Guardsmen were called "weekend warriors" — the standby troops of America’s military forces. But in the Glens Falls, and in thousands of other communities across the country, the role of the Guard changed dramatically when the United States went to war against Iraq.

"To War and Back" is the story of 7 young men — buddies — who joined the National Guard never thinking they’d go to war. But they did, and theirs is a story of loss, honor, friendship and young lives changed forever.

The life the young men knew before the war revolved around Glens Falls, a town so “all-American,” it was dubbed “Hometown U.S.A.” by Look Magazine during World War II.  But in recent years, Glens Falls has become a fading factory and mill town.  For working class kids, the National Guard was an option for college money. 

When Rob, Pete, Tim, Chad, Ken, Andy and Nathan  joined, it was a safe bet: No one from their infantry division had been sent to battle since World War II. But times had changed, and they found themselves in Samarra, in the thick of things. Today, 40 percent of the American troops on the ground in Iraq are from the Guard. They are weekend warriors no more.

Of the seven who left Glens Falls together, only six would make it back. Three would be seriously wounded. All of them would be changed forever. 

All seven soldiers knew they were part of that family, knew they’d watch each other’s backs. But in this case they were even more than battle buddies— their close friendships went back years, forged on ball fields, around pool tables, and over late-night video game duels. Still, in the unpredictable world they’d been thrown into there was no guarantee that they could always save each other. 

By early March 2005, the soldiers from the Nighthawk platoon were all back in the Glens Falls area, even those who had been wounded. None had begun looking for jobs at that point. Some were still considered to be in active duty because of their wounds, so they weren’t permitted to work outside the Army. And the others didn’t seem quite ready to adjust to civilian life. They were spending a lot of time together, a kind of mutual protection pact.

When I went with these close friends to their favorite bar, it was a comfort zone for them, a hang-out from before the war, where they shot a little pool and kept up the good-natured bantering. But so much has changed. The scars may be covered, but the soldiers are painfully aware of how trying the healing process can be.

In less than a year, they went through a lifetime of ordeals that will likely divide their lives into “before” and “after.” Yet when they left for Iraq, none of them was older than 23 years old.

Home from combat, the young men traveled just south of Glens Falls to the war memorial in Saratoga Springs, New York. There they could see a place for themselves in history.

What happened to the men of the Nighthawk platoon is not unique to Glens Falls. All across America combat veterans of Iraq are back home, proud of their service, but so many are struggling to put their lives together, coping with terrible injuries and mourning the loss of friends. What they have seen and what they’ve been through has put a deep imprint on them — and they should not feel they have to endure this stage of the war alone.

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