Sean Escarciga, 27, always had the feeling he would one day join the military. After all, his father served in the Air Force and his father’s father served in the Army. His mother’s father was in the 2nd Infantry in Korea — the same division Escarciga would one day serve in Afghanistan.

By the time he was in his early teens, Escarciga was watching the war on terror unfold on TV. It’s what eventually made him choose the infantry.

“I think I always knew I was always going to join the military, but I didn’t know I was going to join the infantry,” he said.

Escarciga remembers being moved by the things he saw. As he got older and his decision to join grew stronger, he felt it was “a shame” that men with families were dying, while single men like himself were at home.

“It was more a question like, what am I doing, and why am I not fighting in this war?” he said. “The more people who enlist, the less likely that the currents will have to redeploy.”

Escarciga, who aspires to be a clinical social worker for the VA and currently attends Baylor working toward that goal, purposely chose the infantry so he could go where he felt he was needed the most.

San Antonio to Kandahar

At 21 he enlisted in his hometown of San Antonio and was sent to Fort Benning, outside of Columbus, Ga. He spent 17 weeks in basic, plus an extra week in mortar training. He traveled to Fort Lewis in Washington state to train with his “team,” honing his skills and learning tactical movements.

Ironically, he and the other men trained for duty in Iraq. Prior to deployment, President Barack Obama sent orders for 4,000 soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team — along with 8,000 Marines — to go to Afghanistan. Escarciga and his team had to switch their regimen to learn mountain maneuvers. In June 2009, the unit shipped out to Kandahar.

Escarciga marked the 13 months he spent there by special dates — two birthdays and one Christmas. It was a harsh climate, and the Afghan people were not very receptive to the presence of U.S. troops.

“Throughout the whole deployment, I never felt welcome. We were there to help; but at no point did I feel the locals were thankful. We were intruders,” he said.

Still, the unit did its best to help. Sometimes the U.S. soldiers would pass out rice, oil and blankets. Other times, they would have soccer balls for the children.

“I saw a lot of poverty,” he said, noting there was no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Some people had generators, but most did not. “There were a lot of kids on the street,” he said.

He also saw more than his share of death, and several of his friends were killed. In fact, within three days, Escarciga received the CIB — Combat Infantryman Badge — for engaging in active ground combat.

It was, after all, a dangerous time in Afghanistan. The Washington Post had reported that 35 soldiers were killed in combat, six others died from accidents and other causes and 239 were wounded during that time.

But Escarciga was never afraid.

‘Drink water and move on’

“You don’t have time to be scared,” he said, “You’ve been trained so hard that your first reaction is to act.”

The first time a friend was killed by a land mine, Escarciga took it hard. He remembers being sad. But a team leader told him something he’s never forgotten.

“He said, ‘Drink water and move on,’ ” Escarciga said. “I feel like that’s where I lost my innocence. It kind of snapped me back into being a soldier.”

After that point, death became easier to bear, and he was able to better focus on doing his job.

In fact, the hardest part for Escarciga was not the death around him. It wasn’t the 112-degree heat nor the lack of showers. It wasn’t carrying around 80 pounds of equipment as he climbed mountains, careful all the while to avoid IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

The hardest part was coming home.

“I remember looking out and seeing people with signs. I remember not wanting to get off the plane. They were so happy, but I wasn’t ready for them yet,” he said.

It wasn’t until he took off his uniform for the last time that he finally felt at home.

But he’s never forgotten the phrase, “Drink water and move on.” He still uses it today when something becomes too emotional. It helps him separate the emotions from the problem so he can focus on the solution, he said. And, in the long run, he said, it will help him become a better social worker, as well.

“Voices of Valor,” which features stories about Central Texas veterans, runs on Sundays. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email voicesofvalor@wacotrib.com.