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There were tears and smiles Saturday as a Juneau family welcomed home a son and brother who has been serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan since January.
Spc. Michael Moniak, 22, was among the members of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., who provided security at military airfields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I'm telling you, I was Miss Waterworks," said Jessica Moniak, 16, of her reaction at the Juneau Airport to Michael's return.
"The best thing out of all of this is we're very proud of him," said his mother, Lisa Viteri, in an interview Wednesday from their Mendenhall Valley home, where American flag balloons hovered near the dining table. "He walked off tall and proud with the biggest smile on his face. We wouldn't trade that for anything in the world."
Moniak served in Kandahar and Bagrum in Afghanistan and in Jacobabad, Pakistan. He lived in tents, didn't take a shower the first six weeks and carried an M-4 rifle with an attached grenade launcher. A normal day was working two hours in the day, then a nighttime schedule alternating two hours on duty and two hours of sleep.
Working security duty meant "sit in a bunker and watch the perimeter of the airfield and watch for any people who aren't supposed to be there crossing the wire," he said.
"We didn't go out and clear caves," Moniak said. But in one daytime operation he and others flew to a Taliban military compound near the Pakistan border to "clear" it.
"The camp had been abandoned," Moniak said. "It was well-bombed way before we got there. What cave we found, we blew up, we sealed off."
Moniak said he also participated in two helicopter rescue missions to pick up special forces "when they got compromised."
"They ask for an extraction. We provide security for them while they're getting on the bird," Moniak said.
The security forces included members of the British and Canadian military, and Danish, Australian and U.S. special forces, Moniak said. He didn't have much contact with Afghan soldiers, who he said ranged in age from 12 to 50.
On the home front, the family watched television news from Afghanistan, taping the holiday news stories about U.S. soldiers overseas and scrutinizing them for a glimpse of Moniak.
"We never could find him in those crowds," Lisa Viteri said. "There was a lot of rewinding and checking."
For the first two months communication between Moniak and his family was limited to letters that took two weeks in each direction. After that, on a few occasions he was able to phone them for about 15 minutes at a time.
"Oftentimes the phones would get cut off," said Alex Viteri, Moniak's stepfather. "You'd just get past the hellos and it would die off."
The family sent "CARE packages" containing items such as cherry Kool-Aid, cookies, hand lotion, magazines and newspapers, disposable cameras, a flag, and longjohns.
Moniak asked the family for "pictures, pictures, pictures," Jessica said. " 'Any other treats you can think of and all your love.' "
The separation was hard on Jessica, Lisa Viteri said.
"I just had a really hard time with it," she said. "And just wishing he could be home. I can't find the words. ... I wanted to write him, but it makes it harder for me because it's just another reminder he's so far away. You don't really know what to say."
What did Moniak miss most about home?
"Really everything," he said. "Especially being in such a really poor country it gives you a greater appreciation for what we do have here."
Alex Viteri said he could see the emotional stress on the family and Moniak's reaction to being in Afghanistan.
"Every night before I went to bed I said, 'Thank you he's still alive,' " Viteri said. "You know that he was going through something pretty dramatic."
But Alex Viteri said he also thought of the twin towers at the World Trade Center and the thousands who died there.
"Looking back on it, I had a lot of respect and pride in what he did. Somebody had to go over there and it was Michael," Alex Viteri said.
On Lisa Viteri's birthday, July 12, the family heard in a phone call from Moniak a hint that he'd be coming home soon. The calls are monitored by the military and troops are forbidden from giving out their movements, so Moniak said only that it would be his last call.
"That was like somebody took the pressure out of a tire," Alex Viteri said.
"It was the best birthday present in the world," Lisa Viteri said.
Moniak, who joined the Army right after graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1999, will leave the military in 11 months. In mid-August he returns to Fort Campbell to finish his service. Then he plans to come back to Juneau and hopes to work for the state marine highway or the city police, he said.
"It's good to see him with a guitar in his hand instead of a rifle," Lisa Viteri said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.