Two West Fargo High School grads were happy to be able to spend a few weeks at home recently, enjoying some much needed rest and relaxation with family and friends, following a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Lance Corporals Jake Danielson and Chance Zacher were eager to return for the long-awaited reunion with family and friends, in particular their parents, Reed and Ruth Danuser and Annette and Christopher Thompson, all of West Fargo.
In fact, Ruth and Reed (and sister Amanda) were so anxious to see Jake return to American soil, they traveled to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina to greet him when he stepped off the bus.
"The best part is when you realize they are no longer in Afghanistan," Ruth said. "But it was so good to hear him laugh and see him smile in person. I can still feel our arms wrapped around each other!" When Chance flew in a few days later, they also welcomed him. "Jake was really happy to see him," Ruth added. "It was just a great relief and so much fun to have them both home." Lance Corporal Matt Wolf from Grand Forks was also there to greet Chance.
The pair began their military careers together, making the commitment right out of high school.
Danielson said his decision to join was made at the young age of ten, when he realized that was what he wanted to do with his life. "I got really passionate about the military in fourth grade." Danielson participated in Civil Air Patrol and Army JROTC prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps.
It was after 911 that Zacher decided military service would also be a big part of his future. "My brother wanted to be in the Marine Corps and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't think college was a good choice at the time, so the military was the best way to go at the same time."
Danielson and Zacher went off to boot camp in San Diego, followed by infantry training at Camp Pendleton, Calif, before being assigned to the Second Battalion Second Marines at Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, N.C.
The battalion was deployed in October of 2009 to Afghanistan for a seven-month tour, completing their mission and returning to Camp LeJeune in May 2010, where they will remain until their next deployment.
Both weathered their time in Afghanistan as well as could be expected, admitting the experience "changed them a bit."
As Infantrymen for two separate units located about 15 miles apart, their mission was to search out and clear Taliban from the South Helmond Province.
"You definitely mature faster seeing and experiencing some of the different things that occurred during the time," Zacher said.
"Yeah, you know what actually matters," Danielson added. "You don't get upset over the little things."
During their deployment, their living arrangements could best be described as 'primitive camping,' so returning home was a whole new adjustment.
"You're definitely on higher alert, not used to being surrounded," Danielson said. The first week he and Zacher were back they were driving together in a car. Zacher warned Danielson that he was about to open a Monster drink can "it's going to be loud and it's going to pop." Danielson still jumped and jerked the car. "It was a quick non-thinking reaction, the brain is still fully active," Danielson said.
Other normal things also took on new monumental meaning.
"I was flushing a toilet," Zacher said, and "I thought, wow, running water." Both agreed having the ability to use their cell phones to communicate whenever they wanted to was also a real newfound treat.
"You notice a lot of little things that everybody else takes for granted," Danielson said.
Zacher agreed. "I'm seeing my family more than before, spending almost every day with them, my little sisters and parents. It gives you a new appreciation for what matters the most. One thing I took for granted probably the most before I left was my family because I knew they would always be here for me." Zacher also savored time spent with his girlfriend of two-years, Bailey Lilienthal, who he met right before entering the military.
Danielson also found himself in a bonding mode with family and special friends, spending as much time as possible relaxing and enjoying whatever the moment offered. A true high point of his visit was attendance at the annual West Fargo VFW Memorial Day program. "My grandfather, Gene Estad, a Korean War Vet, drove two hours to attend the service with me. Veterans attending the service fought their way through the crowd to welcome me," he said proudly. "They were so honored to have their newest vet at their Memorial Day program and I was honored to be there. It was really cool, walking in there and the first thing they wanted to do was shake my hand."
No matter how their days were spent, both admitted the two weeks at home were a much needed reprieve from what they had left behind in war-torn Afghanistan.
Danielson said the most difficult part "was losing buddies and not being able to do anything about it." Sometimes it occurred while on post at another location and sometimes they learned of it over the radio.
"Hearing an explosion and not knowing for five to ten minutes what was going on was horrible," Zacher said.
No matter how great their sacrifice, both said it didn't compare to those who laid down their lives to promote a better way of life for the citizens living there and desiring peace.
"The Taliban are a lot about religion and trying to get their extremist views across in the name of religion," Danielson said. "It is important for the locals there to stand up for themselves so they can have their own economy. It is more of a mind thing. We were not there to control them but to help let them live their own lives."
On that note, both felt some progress was made. Near the end of his time, Danielson said he finally felt comfortable sitting down and talking with the locals. "The kids were finally able to play games and have fun. They were also able to eat berries, because they had reopened the markets. I felt more comfort in knowing them. We were still on high alert but our nerves were a little more at rest. The locals were more willing to talk to us and the kids wouldn't stop harassing us for pens," he said light-heartedly.
Zacher said they were also able to make friends within the Afghan National Army, even though they couldn't understand them. "We were starting to get schools built up outside our gate. Locals were happier and a new government seeding program was being implemented. Farmers would get seeds for free." Up until that time the Afghan people's main source of income was opium and marijuana and now because of the military influence they were looking to corn, wheat, beans, rice and sunflowers as their mainstays.
When asked about a second deployment to Afghanistan, Zacher said he would be "more than happy to go back. I have the experience from before so I would know what to expect and how to interact with locals."
Danielson said he has mixed feelings. "I'm definitely not afraid. Most likely it would be a different location. However, having been there, I would have an idea of what I was in for and would know how to react."
The pair is now back at Camp LeJeune where they will be serving as team leaders, teaching and preparing others for their first deployment to Afghanistan as well as further educating themselves.
Whatever lies ahead, they intend on "rolling with the punches."
Neither plans to re-enlist.
"I have a family and a girlfriend and I can't put them through that again," Zacher said. His future plans include attending college and earning a degree, perhaps in computer tech or law enforcement.
Danielson has his sights set on either becoming a cop or teacher after attending the University of Texas, where the Longhorns rule.