He lived history, and now he studies it

Fort Lewis College history major Michael Long served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. His arms bear tattoos from his time in the service. Enlarge photo

David Bergland/Durango Herald

Fort Lewis College history major Michael Long served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. His arms bear tattoos from his time in the service.

Michael D. Long turned 21 on Sept. 11, 2001.

Stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., where he was assigned to the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, he had gotten engaged two days earlier.

Long had taken an unlikely course to the 82nd. As a teen in Southern California, he spent his time skateboarding and listening to punk rock music. Among his favorite bands was Operation Ivy, which in their song “Unity,” sang: There’s a war going down between my brothers tonight, I don’t want no war going down ... stop this war.

He’d known tough times, though, having come from a broken home and at times having no home at all. After finishing high school, when one day a friend said he planned to join the Army, Long without thinking much about it said, “OK, me, too.”

The friend backed out, Long didn’t, drawn in some part by the adventure and epic heroism depicted in movies such as “Saving Private Ryan.”

That’s what pushed him to seek the airborne assignment and his first jump was as breathtaking as he imagined.

“I’ll never forget the experience,” Long said. “It was just amazing.”

His first deployment was in 2000 to Egypt. It was around the time of the USS Cole bombing by al-Qaida, but few then had an inkling what that attack foretold

After Sept. 11, everything changed.

“Everybody knew war was coming ... we just didn’t know when,” he said.

During this waiting period, his four-year commitment to the Army lapsed. He decided to re-enlist, but switched to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in Zicenza, Italy. He said he wanted to get there with his wife, Lucy, whom he married in December 2001, and he joked that the guys in Italy never deploy.

But he was to be in Europe only briefly.

In late March 2003, just days after the start of the Iraq war, the 173rd Airborne was deployed to Northern Iraq. After assembling at the Bashur Airfield, they pushed on to Kirkuk trailing Special Forces and allied Kurdish forces. They rode in on requisitioned flatbeds, which he said made them feel sort of like sitting ducks.

When they arrived in Kirkuk, they found a city destroyed. Utilities weren’t working, and the residents, a melting pot of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds, were fighting one another.

“We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he said.

Long spent most of that year in Kirkuk.

The men slept in the offices of a government building. In the beginning especially, they didn’t have much food or water. They encountered random violence and, increasingly during the deployment, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which would go on to become the signature weapon of the insurgency and take countless soldiers’ lives.

Long bristles at how death is treated in the military. He said the dead are venerated as heroes but rarely grieved as human beings. And quickly, it’s time to forget and move on.

There were bright spots, though, to his time there, like playing with the children who lived near their compound.

“I loved the kids. They were great. It’d be interesting if Iraq were ever that stable where I could go back to Kirkuk and hit up the old neighborhood,” he said.

He wondered if the same shops would still be there and if the kids were getting an education.

In February 2004, Long’s brigade returned to Italy, where they spent about a year before being deployed to a remote area in southern Afghanistan in March 2005.

“We did a lot of working with villages. We did a lot of food supply,” he said.

As a sergeant of a four-man team, he helped train Afghan police officers and patrolled villages in the region looking for weapons. There, too, he got to know many of the local children who would come running after them asking for chocolate.

While there, he befriended stray animals, including a puppy he called Baby. His superior ordered the dog destroyed, however, because it was aggressive toward to the Afghan police, who beat it.

Sometimes his team found IEDs. That’s when a demolition team like the one made famous in the movie “Hurt Locker” would be called in.

“They take hours to show up,” he said, chuckling over the recalled irritation.

The terrain was dry, rugged and, at times, it was bitter cold. But against the odds, he said they did good work.

“There was a lot of stuff we helped take care of out there, stability in the region,” he said.

The brigade returned to Italy in March 2006. By summer, he was back in the United States and out of the Army, his second commitment complete. (The documentary “Restrepo” follows the brigade on its next tour, focusing on an outpost in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. One of the men featured was his roommate.)

He went to see Lucy in North Carolina. After they were married, her health had steadily deteriorated from complications related to lupus, an autoimmune disease. During the years of his service, he said she had withdrawn from him, and eventually they were divorced. She died several years later.

Talking about her, his face flushed red and eyes welled with tears as memories of the relationship filled him with regret and sadness.

He came to Southwest Colorado because his father lives in Pagosa Springs. He worked in roofing until he lost his job and decided it was good time to give college a try. With help from the GI Bill, he enrolled at Fort Lewis College.

“I was like a wrecking ball for a long time,” said Long, who is majoring in history. “Fort Lewis has been really good for me.”

Still, Long, who is tattooed over his arms and chest with imagery related to the wars and to ska music, feels fundamentally changed. He feels a separateness from people, and he often walks from place to place by alleyways.

Asked if he would do it again, he said he didn’t think so: “I’d stay home, take care of Lucy.”

Michael Long befriend many of the neighborhood children while serving with the 82 Airborne Division in Kirkuk, Iraq. He often wonders what became of the children. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Michael Long

Michael Long befriend many of the neighborhood children while serving with the 82 Airborne Division in Kirkuk, Iraq. He often wonders what became of the children.

While in Afghanistan, Michael Long befriended a puppy he named Baby. His commander ordered the dog destroyed, however, because it was aggressive toward the Afghan police recruits, who abused it. Enlarge photo

David Bergeland/Durango Herald

While in Afghanistan, Michael Long befriended a puppy he named Baby. His commander ordered the dog destroyed, however, because it was aggressive toward the Afghan police recruits, who abused it.

Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

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