Like many teenagers, Spc. Michael Moniak couldn't wait to bust out of his hometown after graduating from high school. Juneau was small and stifling, and he wanted to see the world.
He saw it: The U.S. Army took him across two continents, from Alaska to Kentucky, and from South Korea to Afghanistan to Iraq. Through it all, Moniak has kept the thought of home close to his heart.
"I left this place, and I've regretted it ever since. I was young and stupid. When you're that young, you think you know everything, and you come to realize you really had no clue," he said.
And so, when time came to re-enlist, he chose to return to Alaska. His three-year tour in Fairbanks begins in mid-October. He returned to the States last month from a six-month tour in the Persian Gulf, and arrived in Juneau on Friday.
Moniak is now 23, and doesn't look as old. But four years of Army service, including two six-month tours in war zones, will make a boy grow up quickly. In June, he received the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service.
A fire team leader in the 101st Airborne Division, his job in Afghanistan and Iraq was to lead a team of three privates in combat situations. Though the experience of being shot at never becomes routine, an instinctive response born of months and months of tedious training always kicks in.
"You really don't realize what you feel until after, because your first instinct is to do what your leader tells you. All your training takes over at that point," Moniak said.
Training can condition a soldier's reflexes, but it isn't as effective in reining in his emotional reaction to war.
"I've shot at people, and they went down," he said quietly, staring into the carpet. "When you're shooting at someone, three other guys are shooting too. So you don't really know."
But in a war zone, shooting is a matter of survival.
"We don't shoot people just to shoot people. You shoot people out of necessity, as a last resort. If it's you or him, you know, send flowers," Moniak said.
He became quiet again, eyes widening in an unfocused stare at the coffee table, as he talked about his experiences in Al-Hillah, a small city south of Baghdad. Moniak's company holed up in an abandoned military complex formerly used by Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia. The company posted guards at the fence surrounding the compound and interviewed civilians to determine what the Iraqis had used the building for.
"There was torture going on in there," Moniak said, his voice dropping until it was almost inaudible. "This guy came up to the fence and his right ear was missing. It was really hard for him to talk. They cut off tongues, fingers, ears, hands."
Before arriving in Iraq, Moniak felt the United States should have stayed out.
"In Afghanistan, we knew we had to go because of what had happened with al-Qaida. But we didn't think Iraq was a direct threat to the U.S. We didn't have any business going over there," he said.
Though his time in the Gulf didn't change his mind, he said the war's net effects are positive.
"You see grown men come up crying, thanking you," he said. "Every city we went to was like a Fourth of July parade, just people lined up on the streets, waving and shouting with smiles on their faces. We liberated a country. We did a good thing and I have no regrets."
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.