Greg Pizzute was driving his daughters home from a dentist appointment last week. The road from Savannah back to Fort Stewart in Georgia is straight and he kept his eyes trained in that direction, straight ahead, not wavering.
His wife, Brandie, sat next to him. Two of his daughters, Kayleigh and Bella, sat in the back seat, watching a “Cinderella’’ DVD, blissfully unaware of what their father was thinking.
“It struck me,” Greg Pizzute was saying. “Here I am, with my wife and kids, and my eyes are locked, straight ahead. And in a few days, I’ll be in a Humvee and my eyes will be everywhere. Left, right, center, back. I’ll be looking everywhere. My head will be on a swivel. Because you have to. That’s how you stay alive.”
Army Staff Sergeant Greg Pizzute left his wife and three daughters the other day and boarded a plane that took him to a god forsaken part of Afghanistan, hard by the Pakistan border. The Tangi Valley is where he will spend the next nine months, his third combat tour in five years.
He is not complaining, because he is a soldier, a leader of men, and this is what he does. But this war has gone on so long, at so much cost, and with so few Americans invested in it, that Greg Pizzute’s story needs to be told if only that we all pause and put aside our petty distractions and remember that we have consigned a generation of brave and honorable young people to war without end.
Staff Sergeant Greg Pizzute is a weapons squad leader in the First Platoon, Fourth Brigade of the Third Infantry division. There are eight men under his command, ranging in age from 19 to 33.
Frankly, most of them are kids. Pizzute himself is 28, practically an old man by Army standards.
‘The best way to honor my brothers who died or got hurt is to keep my guys safe and complete the mission.’
“On the ground,” he said, “I think about my guys, not myself. That doesn’t make me special. That’s how the Army trained me. I would rather I get hurt than they get hurt. It’s real. It’s not a cliche. I would rather get killed than the guy standing next to me gets killed. I don’t want that guilt. What we do in combat is the true meaning of brotherhood. I would take a bullet for any of my guys. And I know they would do the same for me. That’s how you survive war.”
He did two tours of Iraq. At first, he was a bit cynical. The Iraqis seemed so intent on fighting their own byzantine battles. But, with time, things changed.
“The difference between my first tour and my second tour was huge,” he said. “The second tour, the Iraqis were actually nice to us. They realized we weren’t staying around, that we just wanted to help and get out of there.”
But Afghanistan is another story, another world, another century.
“The Taliban are so different from Al Qaeda,” he said. “They are much more respected where we’re going, so much part of the social fabric. The Iraqis didn’t like Al Qaeda because they saw them for what they are. The Taliban, in Afghanistan, have been fighting, in one form or another, for 2,000 years and they’ve never been defeated. The Taliban have much more influence over villagers, through intimidation or outright violence, or just the ability to influence people who have no access to the Internet or the outside world by claiming that Americans are horrible people. You go into a village and think you have a rapport with the elders, and the next day you’re blown up.”
Pizzute’s antidote to the Taliban is not complicated.
“I treat people the way I want to be treated,” he said. “With respect. I will respect their traditions and values, their culture. I just want the same in return.”
He is under no illusions. On this tour, which is supposed to be one of the last of this interminable war, he needs to worry as much about his avowed allies as his avowed enemies. Green on blue, they call it, when a member of the Afghan national police or army turn on their American trainers.
“We just need to keep an eye open,” Pizzute said. “Most of the Afghans in the police and army are great guys. They want the same thing as we do. We want them to do well. We want them to take responsibility for the security of their own country. For me, it’s important that we complete this mission, and leave the Afghan people with a well-trained, competent army and police force. I don’t want all my brothers who have died in combat over the last 12 years to have died for nothing.”
I asked him if he ever tallied up the numbers. The brothers who have died or lost a limb overseas or part of their mind back home.
“I don’t keep a list,” he said. “Those guys are in my heart, but they’re not in my head because I can’t think like that when I’m in a combat situation. That wouldn’t be fair to the guys in my squad. I remember one of my commanders said to me, after we got hit by an IED in Iraq, ‘You have 24 hours to be upset, and then you’re going back out.’ The best way to honor my brothers who died or got hurt is to keep my guys safe and complete the mission.”
At any given time in the last decade less than one percent of Americans served in the military, a decade of perpetual war. When is the last time you thought about the war, or the sacrifice that comes with it? Like so many other soldiers, Greg Pizzute’s sacrifice is measured not by the days in combat so much as the days away from his wife and three daughters.
“The hardest part is leaving my wife and kids for a third time,” he said. “Brandie is my rock. I can’t do it without her. She keeps it good on the home front. It’s like she’s deploying too. I feel military wives should be appreciated more than they are. They might not be getting shot at, but they’re getting screamed at by little kids and they have no one to help them.”
He watched one of his daughters being born, via Skype, from Iraq. The girls range in age, and in comprehension. Bella is 2, Kayleigh is 4, and they only know that daddy got on a plane. Noelle is 11, sharp as a tack, and she knew this day was coming. A few months ago, she talked to a Santa at the mall and she told him that all she wanted for Christmas was for her dad not to go to Afghanistan.
But, again, he is not complaining. He is a soldier and this is what soldiers do. They will be turning the lights off when, God willing, Greg Pizzute returns from this combat mission. Most of the soldiers under his command will leave the Army. He will not.
“I had some troubled teenage years,” he said. “I was a mess. The Army gave me a chance. Not only to do something for myself, but to do something bigger than myself. And I didn’t understand that until I saw combat. The Army made me a better man, a better husband, a better father. It changed my life. I didn’t go to college. I went to the university of combat. And I saw some of my brothers die, and I saw some of my brothers get badly hurt, and I want to keep serving for those who couldn’t keep serving.”
The only reason I know all this is that Greg Pizzute is my nephew. I have skin in this game. I cradled him in my arms when he was a few months old. I took him on the swan boats in the Public Garden when he was a little boy and I’ll never forget his smile when his aunt — my wife — let him sit on one of the “Make Way for Ducklings’’ statues. I worried for him in his wayward teens, and I marvel at him now, because he is everything you would want in a young man. He is a loving husband, a wonderful father. And yet he is at his core a soldier, a leader of men, and I will think of him and his squad every day for the next nine months.
I would ask that you do also. There is no doubt that those who fought fascism in the 1940s were the greatest generation.
But these kids today, what we ask them to do, for short money and little thanks, they are pretty great themselves. We honor them by remembering that, and remembering them.
Greg Pizzute climbed into an armored vehicle today. He looked all around. Front, back, side to side. He is a soldier. And this is how soldiers survive.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.