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Area natives connect while stationed in Afghanistan
From left, Army Maj. Brad Heath, Capt. David Coleman, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Akers and Army Capt. Brad Stubblefield stand recently in front of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle at the New Kabul Compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. The four men discovered that they all were from the Martinsville/Henry County area after being assigned to the compound. (Contributed photo)
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
By AMANDA ALDERMAN - Bulletin Staff Writer
A military compound in Afghanistan doesn’t seem like the most likely place for four Americans from the same community to bump into one another, but that is exactly what happened to a group of Martinsville-Henry County natives.
And no one is more surprised than they were.
It started this spring, when Army Maj. Brad Heath, who grew up in Bassett, was talking to a colleague in the New Kabul Compound in Afghanistan’s capital. Heath mentioned that if he were home instead of in Afghanistan, he and his wife, Amber, would be going to the spring race at Martinsville Speedway.
The colleague, Capt. Joey Smith, mentioned that he thought his roommate, Army Capt. David Coleman, was from near Martinsville.
“I was surprised (because) throughout my 17 years of service, I have never run into anyone from Martinsville or Henry County,” Heath recalled.
Smith introduced Heath and Coleman, a 2000 graduate of Fieldale-Collinsville High School who grew up between Fieldale and Sanville.
In April, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Akers, a 1976 Martinsville High School graduate who now works as a Department of Defense (DoD) civil service employee, arrived at the compound from Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and settled into the office beside Smith’s. Akers soon told Smith that he grew up in Martinsville, and Smith told him about Heath and Coleman’s connections to the area.
“Come to find out,” said Heath, a 1992 graduate of Bassett High School, “(Akers’) grandfather had lived about three houses down from my grandfather, Buck Heath, in Bassett.”
Heath and Akers soon had dinner with Coleman and began comparing notes. Before long, Coleman was having lunch on the compound’s grounds when he spotted someone who looked familiar. It turned out to be yet another Henry County native: Army Capt. Brad Stubblefield, who had just arrived in Kabul.
Stubblefield and Coleman were a year apart at F-C, where Stubblefield graduated in 2001. None of the others had met before.
Stubblefield was surprised, particularly to meet so many people from his hometown almost immediately after arriving in Afghanistan.
“The funny thing about all of this is I have been in the military for nine years and never met anyone from Henry County,” he said. Then in one day, “I meet three people. That’s pretty wild.”
The four men from Martinsville-Henry County are in a compound filled with people from all over the world: members of all branches of the U.S. military, civilian contractors, DoD civilian employees, NATO and coalition partners, and Afghans.
Heath described the compound’s main building as similar to Memorial Hospital in Martinsville. A perimeter fence surrounding the building and its grounds is two-thirds of a mile long.
“The building we work in is kind of like being on a ship. We work here, we eat here, we go to the gym, we sleep here,” explained Heath.
Other than hitting the gym, calling or writing loved ones, and watching movies or TV shows, there isn’t a great deal to do for fun, the men said. But their jobs keep them busy enough that they don’t have much time to notice.
Working 14- to 16-hour days is pretty typical, said Heath, a graduate of Radford University and the University of Kansas who prepares briefings and synchronizes the staff of a major general.
Coleman, who earned a law degree from the University of Virginia after graduating from Virginia Military Institute, advises commanding officers on “all the legal issues that pop up over here,” he said.
An engineer with a degree from Niagara University, Stubblefield will partner with Afghan forces to set up an Afghan engineering brigade.
“The focus and attention has shifted to putting the Afghans out front” so they can be prepared to handle the future of their country when American and other international troops leave, he said. “We’re taking the training wheels off. So we’re just in an advise-and-assist role now.”
Akers coordinates assessments to help ensure that projects being done in Afghanistan are effective and efficient.
Although Akers spent 28 years in the Air Force and visited seven countries as part of his service before he retired in 2008, this is his first time being deployed. It is Coleman’s first deployment as well.
Heath and Stubblefield have been deployed before. This is Heath’s sixth deployment and Stubblefield’s third. Both served in Iraq and have been in Afghanistan previously.
This time is different, they said.
“It’s different in a NATO environment as opposed to a U.S.-led environment” as Iraq was, Stubblefield said. Not everything is done the way the Americans might choose, he explained.
Part of Heath’s job involves planning the American troops’ withdrawal — scheduled for the end of this year — which he said is much different than what happened in Iraq two and a half years ago.
“I was involved in the closeout of operations in Iraq and was on one of the last flights out in December 2011,” Heath said. “Afghanistan is much more challenging in this regard,” largely because of the logistics involved in moving equipment out of the landlocked country.
“We have to fly out a much larger share of our equipment,” Heath said.
Another way that things are different now, he said, is in how much easier it is to stay in touch with family members back home, even compared to his first deployment in 2003.
Then, he was lucky to share a phone call once a week, maybe writing letters or emails in between.
“Now, there’s Facetime, Skype, Facebook, text (messages),” Heath said. “You can pay for a phone to call anytime you want to. It’s amazing the difference.”
All four men said it is relatively easy to keep up with loved ones back home, but that doesn’t keep them from missing things: Coleman mentioned seeing his “two insanely adorable children,” Sam, 2 1/2, and Maddie, 8 months, learning to walk and talk. Akers, who has a 22-year-old daughter, Destiny, and a 17-year-old son, Dylan, talked about soccer games and college preparations.
“A lot of things are happening, and not being able to see it is a bummer,” he said.
As Stubblefield put it, “The time here stays the same, but everything around you still goes on.”
Coleman, who is scheduled to return to Fort Bragg in June, said the first thing he wants to do when he gets back is spend time with his wife, Carrie, and their children.
His mom, Shirley Coleman, lives in Fieldale.
Heath misses his young sons, Buck and Andrew, who live with his wife near Fort Bragg.
Stubblefield, who is stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, said he’ll miss hiking and enjoying the Alaskan summer this year — “all two weeks of it,” he joked. Stubblefield’s mother, Jan Zampich, and stepfather, Mark Grose, live in Figsboro and his stepmother, Lori Olmsted in Snow Creek. His father is Ray Stubblefield.
Despite the things they miss, meeting with others who understand the place they come from has given them a chance to reminisce, they said.
The last time Akers — whose father, Bill Akers, still lives in the area — visited Martinsville, he was struck by the beauty around him.
“It’s a view that you can’t really appreciate until you’ve been away from it for so long,” he said.
“Every season brings back a different image for me,” said Heath, whose mother, Lois Stanley, lives in Collinsville and father, Ronald Heath, in Bassett. He mentioned “all the blooms in spring, summertime on Philpott and Fairystone, the two (NASCAR) races” in the fall and spring, “again in the fall, seeing the leaves changing up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
“We want to thank everyone back there for their support,” Heath added. “The Army is based on a lot of people with the same type of background that you get in Martinsville-Henry County. The hard-working, good, decent people we have in our hometown is the same kind of people you see in the military. It helps a lot in deployment.”
And the hometown connection the four have found helps, too, Akers said.
“Here you are, working 10 feet away from somebody whose grandparents lived across the street (from one another),” he said. “It’s kind of fun to be 7,000 miles away and see people who lived 15 miles from each other.”