Pvt. Austin Schwab, an infantryman with B Troop, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, Fort Lewis, Wash., looks back for instructions while pulling security duty during a combat mission in Didar, southern Afghanistan, April 13.(Photo by Sgt. Marc Loi)
COMBAT OUTPOST KOLK, Afghanistan (April 24, 2012) — Pfc. Austin Schwab woke up cold. He’d spent the majority of the previous day marching through the thick marshes of southern Afghanistan. Later that night, when the platoon in which he serves took over a compound, Schwab spent the majority of the night sleeping on the ground, his rifle next to his side. The early-rising Afghanistan sun woke him. The soldier quickly threw on his protective gear and equipment, and in a matter of seconds, climbed on a ladder toward the compound’s roof to provide security over-watch. He is just 20.
While his friends are busying themselves in college with political and international theories about Afghanistan, the Rock Island, Ill., native is living it. While others see Operation Enduring Freedom through the tidbits of information on the evening news, Schwab sees it through his own two eyes.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the military,” said Schwab, who was in elementary school when the first bombs dropped on the insurgents in Afghanistan. “I wanted to join at 18, but I was working and didn’t join until I was 20.”
War is different through the eyes of a 20-year-old, and especially as an infantryman, Schwab is the prime example. While others wrestle with philosophical questions about the meanings of war and life, Schwab said he is just happy to be in the infantry. What’s more, his experiences, despite being harsher than experiences others have endured, made him more disciplined and allowed him to embrace, rather than push away, the experience of war.
“People ask me what it’s like being over here, and I tell them that there are just no words for it,” he said. “It’s a lot more intense than it is back home – being in the middle of a war zone is a lot different than being home in America.”
One of those differences, said Schwab, is the freedom and autonomy to do whatever he would like. When stationed at a tiny combat operating outpost without so much as indoor plumbing, hot showers become a luxury for soldiers.
“Hygiene – not being able to shower whenever you want, that’s one of the challenges,” he said. “And not being able to talk to my family whenever I want. You could go to the MWR and find out the Internet is down or something.”
Yet, the lack of Internet service and hot showers are the least of his worries. As an infantryman, Schwab is stationed in one of Afghanistan’s most “kinetic” areas – a term soldiers often use to describe the amount of physical threats they face. On any particular day, whether patrolling villages in combat vehicles or on foot, it is unusual for Schwab and the soldiers in his squad to not have contact with the insurgents, he said.
Like many other firsts, Schwab still remembers the first time his squad was shot at. They’d just left the outpost, headed west, when bullets came whizzing by, hitting the dirt around them.
“We just saw dust clouds and heard the cracking of the bullets,” he said, recalling the event. “It was our first and only contact that day, but I remember it.”
Then, there was the time he was involved in a firefight that lasted nearly two hours.
“It was pretty intense,” he said. “It was our first big firefight – I just went through my training, scanned my sector and when they told me to shoot, I took well-placed shots.”
In war, there is no time to think, and it’s no different for Schwab. In that firefight, for example, he fought back based only on instinct; it was only afterward when they were safely back in the protected confines of the tiny outpost did he start to think about the inherent danger of his actions, Schwab said.
“I just went through my training,” he said. “It was only after the firefight that I thought about it.
“My family, they’re scared for me,” he continued. “But they know I am doing what I love and they think it’s really good for me.”
The ability to do what he loves while still earning a living from it, said Schwab, is what fuels his affinity for the infantry.
“The money is nice, but I just enjoy doing this,” he said. “The infantry is one of the tougher jobs in the Army and when I joined, I told myself I wanted to push myself to the limits. I plan on going to the Rangers after I get back.”
Another added benefit to the infantry, is the camaraderie he has experienced, Schwab said.
“One of the things I’ve learned here is that everyone has their ups and downs,” he said. “But in the middle of a firefight, everyone’s got your back –it’s a different kind of brotherhood.
“I love being in the infantry,” he added. “It’s exactly what I thought it would be.”