IRAQ — The blasts were followed by a violent aftermath.
Trapped in thick, black smoke, Army Staff Sgt. Allen “Bubba” Broadbent had no way of knowing that four roadside bombs had just blown up his Humvee, tearing apart the shaft and tires. The burning smell of explosives stung his nose — so much so that he could almost taste it. The Humvee still rolled on, rattling its way through the sandy Iraqi roads with its destroyed engine and tires.
Then came the rays of light, Broadbent told Paul Fitzgerald. In the foreground of cracked windows, Broadbent saw his soldiers’ heads moving. He knew they had all made it.
Sitting in the study of his Groton home, Fitzgerald reads Broadbent’s weekly e-mails describing such war-zone realities. After months of corresponding with the Oklahoma soldier through a program called Soldiers’ Angels, Fitzgerald couldn’t thank the troops enough for what they do — and the peaceful holidays he gets to spend at home.
Fitzgerald feels somewhat guilty about the holiday dinners and his Christmas plans. But Broadbent wants Fitzgerald to keep on writing about it to him.
“I like when he describes ‘home’ to me and it takes me away from this place for a moment, letting me just get out of my own mind,” Broadbent said by e-mail.
It has been nine months since Fitzgerald “adopted” Broadbent through Soldiers’ Angels, a California-based organization, and the two new buddies are spending this holiday season with each other in their minds.
With a slogan of “May no soldier go unloved,” the Soldiers’ Angels program calls on its volunteers to send a care package every month to a soldier or soldiers they have adopted and write to them every week, according to Fitzgerald.
His first adopted soldier in Afghanistan didn’t write back to him, but Broadbent did. A friendship quickly blossomed between the two men from worlds apart — Fitzgerald, the regional sales manager for a Littleton engineering firm who serves as chairman of the Groton Republican Town Committee, and Broadbent, a 31-year-old father of two with 13 years in the Army.
Broadbent says he has always wanted to help civilians better understand troops’ value and mindset because the military tends to get a “bad rap.”
On his third tour in Iraq — and after more than 1,000 days “in theater” — Broadbent has plenty of stories to share. He tells Fitzgerald how he watched the sun set and rise again without ever sleeping on a 300-mile convoy mission, sitting in the exact same spot and sweating under the 40-pound gear.
And when a tractor-trailer driven by a third-world national flipped over, he and the medic team gave the victim emergency treatment before a Blackhawk helicopter carried him away. It was a one-hour “textbook-perfect” operation that saved a life.
Fitzgerald knows that Broadbent never sits with his legs crossed because that would prevent him from springing to his feet quickly to defend himself. And he knows that all soldiers sit with their backs to the walls in restaurants so they can see the people coming in.
Broadbent may like to e-mail, but Fitzgerald makes it a point to hand-write his letter with a fountain pen so that Broadbent can experience the special feel of opening an envelope.
Fitzgerald writes about his daughter having gone off to college this fall, his son playing sports, and dining out with his wife. He tells how Broadbent’s advice on not dwelling on negative thoughts and “just doing it” helped him improve his running.
Fitzgerald goes around stores, looking for Gillette deodorant that Broadbent can’t get his hands on and bagged tunas that he likes to munch on when hungry. Crackers and macaroni and cheese in a box are staples in Fitzgerald’s care packages.
Knowing Broadbent remembers his past 13 Christmases by where he was deployed — and the fact that he has seen his baby daughter for just five days — Fitzgerald says the holidays with his family feel a lot more special.
He also feels he has made some difference in Broadbent’s life.
“When you give, you also receive, and I certainly received in this,” Fitzgerald said.
Broadbent says Soldiers’ Angels, which matches soldiers with volunteers through an easy online process, has provided many soldiers with good moral support.
“I tell people, when they ask what to send, that any mail is good when deployed — even if it’s a bill — because at least you got something,” Broadbent said.
For more information on Soldiers’ Angels, visit www.soldiersangels.org.
Contact Hiroko Sato at firstname.lastname@example.org.