Preparing for duty

ilitary duty rarely yields to celebrations such as Thanksgiving, or even marriage.

Sgt. Matthew Bernard realized this when he extended his Army Reserve commitment: The call could come at any time. But never did he imagine he would have roughly 10 days to enjoy a Turkey Day, meet various personal and family obligations and exchange vows with his fiancee.

“Life keeps moving on,” Bernard said.

The 26-year-old Milford resident offered this truism somewhat passively Tuesday evening while relaxing in his family room. Maybe it was fatigue – he had countless loose ends to tie that day, including getting a marriage license at Milford Town Hall. Or maybe it was the preternatural coolness of a soldier.

Nonetheless, Bernard and his fiancee, Shayne Kadlec, are fast-forwarding through days that seemingly have little emotional burden until the couple actually stops moving at night. Then they quietly reflect on the sacrifices and challenges to come for the next six to 18 months.

Bernard will be deployed Monday to a place where his skills in telecommunications are needed. He tracks unit deployments and provides field information to commanders who make decisions away from the scene of battle.

He could see action in Iraq or Afghanistan; he still doesn’t know yet where he will serve, or for how long. He’ll simply board a plane out of Manchester Airport and respond.

“I’m going to go there and support the troops, just do my job,” Bernard said. “It’s part of the sacrifice when you raise your right _hand. You give a little, the military gives a little.”

As a member of the 1st Battalion, 304th Regiment based in Londonderry, Bernard expected to have stateside duty, training recruits at some base down South. And, unlike most deployments, only three members of his unit were called into action – the rest will stay _behind.

But rarities quickly feel routine in a military landscape that calls for orderliness and focus. The soldiers know this, practice it without considerable deliberation, and their families, in turn, come to expect as much. Actually grasping it, though, is another matter.

“I could see he had something to tell me,” Kadlec said, recalling the day last week when Bernard received his orders. “I was floored. It was the last thing I expected to hear.”

So as the couple winds down each evening with their children, they ponder how gunfire, mortar blasts and chaos may soon replace Bernard’s nocturnal peace in rural Milford.

“It’s the alone time at night, when we just snuggle up and don’t say anything, that we know how sad it’s going to be,” said Kadlec, who is also 26.

Bernard has discussed his impending absence with his 6-year-old son, Austin, and Kadlec’s boys, 7-year-old Andrew Fuhs and 4-year-old Gavin Fuhs. Their daughter, Saryn, will turn 1 year old next month, just days after Bernard leaves.

So the family is also taking time this week for some celebrations.

That will include a wedding. Bernard and Kadlec will quietly exchange vows Saturday at Mine Falls Park in Nashua. A fellow reservist and justice of the peace, Maj. Carolann Vachon, will officiate.

They had planned on marrying some time next year. But they did not want to leave that in the air while Bernard is overseas.

They have both followed the news, and have seen casualties mount, particularly U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The deaths are “hard to swallow,” Bernard said.

But he considers his daily commute down Route 3 in Massachusetts, to his job as a computer scientist at Nortel Networks, a truer test of mortality.

“It’s going to happen sometime,” Bernard said of death. “You do what you have to do, and pray about it later. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a frightening thing to be in a place that’s not safe. But it has to be done _. . . you just have to be on guard and aware of your environment.”

Bernard sums up his sentiments through a song by country artist Toby Keith, “American Soldier.” Kadlec cried the other day when she heard it:

“I’m just trying to be a father
raise a daughter and a son
be a lover to their mother
everything to everyone.
Up and at ’em bright and early
I’m all in my business suit
Yeah, I’m dressed for success from my head down to my boots.
I don’t do it for money
there’s still bills that I can’t pay
I don’t do it for the glory
I just do it anyway.”
Kadlec acknowledges she’ll face lonely days, with her contact with her new husband strictly through e-mail or phone. Her parents live nearby, though, lessening the burden of single parenting.

Bernard feels better knowing that he will be leaving his family in good hands. He credits his fellow reservists for offering the most basic services and attention to his family after he leaves. That camaraderie is part of the reason why he re-enlisted; he also wants to become an officer.

Until then, he’ll answer the call and hope that he comes home to see his family – all of them possibly a year older, but cognizant of what he did while he was gone.

“I’m looking at coming home, where you can live freely,” he said.

“Here in the U.S., we have a great military in place to give what we take for granted. Somebody has to sacrifice.”