As US exits Iraq, recent vets find common ground with elders
They look more like a brother or uncle than your grandfather. But they, too, are veterans.
Richard Franzis, an assistant principal at Staples High School in Westport, and Tim Currie Jr., a longtime Fairfield resident before making Fort Drum, N.Y., his home, don't have the wrinkles of their military elders who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But they are forever bonded with those veterans who came before them through shared experiences.
Years ago, a general told Franzis, an Iraq war veteran, that military service would have an impact on the rest of his life, and that "The Star Bangled Banner" would gain profound meaning for him.
"He really hit the nail on the head," said Franzis, who served as an intelligence commander of a supply unit in Balad, Iraq, 50 to 60 miles north of Baghdad. "We were really tested under fire every day, and to come out and have done a successful job and completed a mission was very rewarding."
Currie said the military gave him needed direction after college injuries ruined his dreams of a pro baseball career.
Franzis, 56, and Currie, 26, declined to comment on President Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, or whether Iraq is ready to defend itself. As former soldiers, they indicated it's not in their nature to question or criticize the commander-in-chief.
"I don't have the expertise to answer that question," said Franzis. "That's for the executive branch to determine. I'm not listening to the joint chiefs' briefs every day."
Currie's only comment on the troop withdrawal was, "I think it will be great to bring the troops home and give everyone more time with their family."
The two will be home this Veterans Day.
Franzis' active duty status ended three years ago, and he is again an Army reservist. He leaves his wife and three children one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer to command a reserve unit in Fort Devens, Mass.
Currie, a medic, is on a two-week leave from deployment in Afghanistan, his second.
Franzis remembers a particular two-week leave from the Middle East when he was able to reunite with his family at Disney World.
"The dichotomy didn't escape me," he said. "I had been in Iraq, and 36 hours later I'm getting off a plane in Orlando. It was very sensory overload to me. The crowd, the noise, the color."
Franzis added there's only "different shades of brown" in Iraq.
"The only green you see there is in the salad bar at the dining facility," he said.
Currie, whose armored vehicle was flipped and split apart by a 300-pound explosive device in 2009, said it's often tough to return home and adjust to regular life. "Crowds can be tough at times," he said.
Currie was invited to the White House last year to be cited for his role helping to save three men trapped in their armored vehicle under fire from Taliban forces. He helped pull them from the vehicle's turret station.
"The blast itself knocked me out," he said. When he regained consciousness, he heard bullets hitting the vehicle's armor. Eventually, Currie's platoon suppressed the enemy -- shooting from huts not far from the road -- and helicopters swooped in to pick them up and transport the wounded.
"I've been in my fair share of engagements with the enemy, but not quite like that before," he said.
Franzis said his experience as an administrator helped prepare him for service in the Middle East.
"There's a lot commonalities," he said. "In my job in Iraq I was dealing with people all the time and sometimes under very stressful conditions. I had to participate in military justice for a few of my soldiers who did things they shouldn't have done. I'm always making difficult decisions at Staples that involve people and a lot of times people are not happy. When it came to dealing with people in uncomfortable situations I was well prepared."
This Veterans Day will be less stressful. Franzis will step out of his school administrator role when he is a guest speaker at Veterans Day programs at both Coleytown and Bedford Middle schools.
Franzis said soldiers of the Iraq and Afghan wars have been treated far better than their Vietnam counterparts were five decades ago. For instance, he recalled when a pilot on a commercial flight once asked all of the passengers to thank Franzis and another soldier for their service.
"The whole plane erupted," he said.
"I think people have learned to separate the war from the warrior. Over the years, I think people have realized soldiers are just doing what their country asked them to do."