Appreciating sacrifice: Deployed soldiers recall pioneer ancestors, celebrate Utah holiday

By Staff Sgt. Rich Stowell, Utah National Guard

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Young serves in Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

Rich Stowell, Department of Defense

By Staff Sgt. Rich Stowell

Utah National Guard

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — They traveled thousands of miles with few belongings to settle in a remote, arid and austere place.

The story can sound oddly familiar to Utahns this Pioneer Day — strangely ironic to these servicemen and servicewomen deployed to Afghanistan.

Kandahar Airfield is their temporary home. And even as their mission demands as much focus as ever, they take time on July 24 to think about their pioneer heritage, their families, and what it all means in light of their service to country.

A little band of Utah National Guardsmen planned to host an authentic, Beehive State barbecue 10 ½ hours before anything in the Mountain time zone. They even ordered up some July-in-Utah weather, just for tradition's sake. Forecast is around 110 degrees.

The unit, based in Draper, left Utah in March for mobilization training on the East Coast. By early May, the group was in Kandahar. Many of the soldiers are fourth- and fifth-generation Utahns, whose ancestors settled the state when it was known as Deseret.

Sgt. Mike Smith, a member of Dakota Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, is spending his second Pioneer Day in Afghanistan. Most of the 20,000 service members and civilians who live here will pass the day unaware of the state of Utah or how it was settled.

Smith is used to it. Growing up in Southern California, he remembers having been among the few who celebrated the holiday in Huntington Beach. It was their “special holiday that only members of (the LDS) Church understood.”

Then he got married and moved to Utah.

“Pioneer Day celebrations became statewide affairs,” Smith said. “The 24th of July meant Days of '47 parades, fireworks — and a day off of work.”

He remembers the emphasis on pioneers in church during July. The devotionals, the stories of faith and sacrifice.

For many service members from Utah, Pioneer Day has particular poignancy as they compare pioneer faith to their own situations in Afghanistan. Removed from the summer festivities back home — parades, rodeos, cookouts and fireworks — they have found a deeper appreciation for those sacrifices of the early Utah settlers.

Smith finds a parallel between their perseverance and his own military service.

“My heart ached for families who lost loved ones and rejoiced for those who made it to the Salt Lake Valley alive.

“As I think about spending this time of year away from family and home, I realize once more how much I have been blessed. I think of the pioneers, and know that their struggles were far greater than mine have been,” he said.

One Pleasant Grove soldier, on her first deployment, said she draws strength from thinking about pioneers.

"When I'm going through a hard time, I realize that it doesn't compare to the suffering that (Utah) pioneers experienced. They traveled through really rough conditions, but they kept going," said Sgt. Chloe Card, broadcast NCO from the 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

Maj. Choli Ence also thinks about the struggles of the original Utah pioneers. Her great-grandparents emigrated from Switzerland and were among the original settlers of Ivins, in Utah's Washington County.

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