“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that any one of my friends would take a bullet if they thought they might have a chance to save someone,” says Sergeant Kenny Spalding of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “Even if it looked hopeless they’d do it because we’re all brothers here.” Spalding, 21, is the son of Lainey Young of Vinalhaven and he is currently serving his third tour of duty in Iraq.
Living on an island, it is sometimes easy to keep what happens on the mainland — or halfway across the world — at arm’s length. However, as Veteran’s Day approaches it is appropriate to bring the Iraq war closer to home.
Spalding, who spent his sophomore year of high school on Vinalhaven, joined the Army June 22, 2004, five days after his 18th birthday. “I have been interested in the Army since I was a kid,” he says. “Growing up, I was always in the woods with friends playing army. My two biggest role models in life were both in the Army, my oldest brother, Sean, and my cousin Jeremy,” he said.
During his time in Iraq Spalding has been deployed to Baghdad, Mosul, Tal Afar and currently back to Baghdad. His unit is part of the first brigade of the “surge” and is expected to come home in April 2008, though rumors are circulating that they may be home by Christmas. “At the end of this tour I will have spent about two years of my four year contract overseas,” he said. Spalding’s contract will be up June 22, 2008, at which time he plans to leave the Army and join his wife, Chelsea, in Greenville, North Carolina. Spalding will attend East Carolina University to train to be an EMT.
Spalding’s mother, Lainey Young, had reservations about her son joining the military, but felt she had to put them aside for her son’s sake. “I knew it was something he really wanted to do ever since he was a little boy,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to argue with him, so I just had to support him.” Now that Spalding is on his third tour, Young is “worn out worrying about him. I’m awful proud of him for what he is doing, but it’s time for him to come home.” However, Young stressed that if her son chose to re-enlist she would continue to support his decision.
Spalding is a member of the infantry. “Our job is to walk the streets and take the fight to the enemy on the ground where they have to face us and fight,” he said. However, the infantry’s job is varied. “Sometimes we do civilian affairs stuff where we’ll go out and talk to the local nationals and find out about the city water supply and food supply and see if we can coordinate to better the two,” he said. “We also do missions where we will go after High Value Targets (or HVT’s.) These are people that are Positively Identified (PIDed) as Anti-Coalition Forces, or terrorists, but it’s not easy to put these people in jail.”
Spalding’s most harrowing experience in Iraq involved a suicide bomber during his second tour. “We were running a humanitarian aid day where all the head males of each household could come and we would give them a sum of money well over $1,000, and that is a lot of money for an Iraqi family to have, especially in this city. Well, the function had been going on for roughly 2-3 hours and was going very well,” he said. “We had the Iraqi National Guard doing security and helping us search the people as they came through the checkpoint. I was about three blocks up the road with my platoon talking to some local nationals when we hear the explosion. We looked in the direction where it came from and saw the plume of smoke. We immediately headed to the site, which happened to be directly in front of our Company Outpost where we lived. When we got there it was widespread panic. There were people in dire need of medical assistance so we went right to work doing whatever we could to save them.” According to Spalding, a woman and her six- or seven-year-old-daughter had come to the outpost strapped with explosives. The explosives were covered with ball bearings to create shrapnel when they were detonated, just before the woman was to be searched. “Things like that are what go through my head every day when I’m out there working,” said Spalding. “You never know where that person is waiting for you to turn around so they can get close and kill themselves to be a martyr.”
As far as the danger of Spalding’s job goes, his mother would rather not know the details. “I don’t ask him things and I don’t think I ever will,” she said. “If he wants to offer things to me I will listen, but I’d really rather not know. One day he called and he had had a close call. It upset me, but I didn’t show him. I felt he needed to talk to his mother.” Aside the obvious fear for his physical safety, Young worries that war might change her son’s personality. But “up to this point it hasn’t, so I’m really grateful for that,” she said.
Thankfully, Spalding has also had some positive experiences in Iraq. “When I was in Tal Afar last deployment I had an interpreter that worked with me for the whole four months. He really liked working with us and was probably the best Arab I have ever met. He was very friendly and appreciative for what we were doing. After that deployment we said our goodbyes and I never expected to see him again. Well, about two months into this deployment I was coming in from patrol and I saw him. As soon as he noticed me he ran over and gave me a big hug and, as the Arabs do in their culture, the two welcoming kisses on the cheeks. He kinda stepped back for a moment and then hugged me again. He said it was good to see me again. That right there showed me that what we do here does have an impact on some and it showed how much we affected his life. It was like seeing an old friend.”
However, despite his ability to have a positive impact on some Iraqis’ lives, Spalding’s outlook on the war itself is not positive. “I don’t feel that [the war] will ever be won,” he said. “I know from firsthand experience that there is too much corruption in the Iraqi government and the police forces to ever instill a functioning system of democracy. On the contrary though, and I believe I speak for almost every soldier in the military, I signed up to protect my country. So as long as I’m needed here (during my four year contract) I’ll give it my all and support those who lead us. And after I’m out of the army I’ll continue to support those who fight for our country.”
“The most important lesson the army has taught me,” Spalding continued, “is don’t take for granted the simple things in life.”