A search of the term “veteran” returns images of faces worn by time and weathered by long ago conflicts. But as 2021 approaches, a new generation of faces has begun to appear. Not as tempered by age, but hardened by a lifetime of war.
(Photo courtesy Stacey (Hornburg) Casias. A new generation of veterans, including Warren’s Stacey Casias (left), is taking its place among those honored during Veteran’s Day each year. Many have spent their entire adult life with the United States embroiled in conflict.)
For many in the late-1990s, war was the last thing on their mind as they contemplated their future. The choices, as high school graduation approached, were often whether to go to college or join the military.
At the time, neither seemed particularly dangerous.
“When I joined the delayed entry program in November 1999, the thought of war was nowhere in sight,” Marine Corps veteran and 2000 Warren Area High School graduate Rusty McAulay said.
One Tuesday in September 2001 changed everything.
“I had planned on doing 20 years and retiring,” McAulay said. “I had dreams of being a Drill Instructor. That all changed after 9/11.”
(Photo courtesy Rusty McAulay. Warren native and Marine Corps veteran Rusty McAulay in Kuwait. McAulay is part of a growing number of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.)
McAulay, who was stationed in Iceland at the time, was soon sent to an infantry unit in California where they began actively training for a possible deployment.
He was sent to Iraq in 2004 for a 6-month deployment. While there, McAulay’s section served as the personal security team for Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians. It was dangerous work as the patrols had to be on the lookout for insurgents.
“We lost guys on multiple days,” McAulay said. “The majority of our casualties were from insurgents attacking foot patrols through the city.”
Later in the decade, Stacey (Hornburg) Casias, one of McAulay’s WAHS classmates, would also find herself in Iraq. She came by way of the U.S. Army and in support of Operation New Dawn.
“It was hot and dusty and (we were) always having to have our guard up,” Casias said. “Since I had females on my team, we of course couldn’t go support infantry units out in their element like my peers did. However, where we were you still had your occasional mortars and there was always small arms fire to be heard outside the base.”
While Casias didn’t have the direct combat experience McAulay did, it’s still one that has stuck with her.
“It’s honestly still an almost surreal experience,” Casias said. “I’m glad it’s over and glad everyone in our unit all came home safe.”
Opportunities drew Casias to the service.
“I was wanting to travel and see the world,” Casias said. “This was a great way to be able to do that as well as having a job that served a purpose higher than myself.”
Though they served at different times and in different branches, both Casias and McAulay said there is a shared bond among those with which they served. One that transcends all others.
“Being part of an organization such as the military, there are some things that will never be replaced,” Casias said. “Such as the camaraderie you have with your fellow battle buddies. Even to this day, I know I can reach out to one of them I haven’t spoken to in years and they will always take the time to talk and be there for you. It’s a bond that can’t be replaced.”
“The best thing will always be the people I met,” McAulay added. “They truly are brothers for life to me.”
The bonds of brotherhood extend not just to those directly in their units, but through time. With the ones who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Gulf War to Vietnam, to Korea and the battlefields in the Pacific and Europe. All generations, together, as one in service to a grateful nation.