Soldier Boy

For families whose sons have gone off to war, the long-awaited homecoming sometimes revelas that the boy has become a man

For families whose sons have gone off to war, the long-awaited homecoming sometimes revelas that the boy has become a man

August 02, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Darren P. Vogt graduated from Smithsburg High School in June 2000. He enlisted in the United States Army the following fall - well before Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a decision made in peacetime, the decision of a guy who wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. Vogt thought military service would provide an opportunity to focus and to earn some money for college.

Vogt signed up with the 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., the unit, Vogt says, was "motivated," and it was close to home.


Vogt's family supported his decision.

"It was a great way for Darren to find focus in his life," says Kathy Hall, his mother.

"It was just what he needed," says Darren's father, Tim Vogt, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va. His son had just been floundering around with no real plans for his future, he said.

Jack Hall, Darren Vogt's stepfather, has long believed that kids should do some kind of service after high school. He joined the U.S. Navy about a year after he graduated and served in Vietnam from 1968 to '69.

In Jan. 2001, Jack and Kathy Hall drove Darren to the transport spot at Valley Mall from where he would be taken to basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia.

The young man sat in the front seat beside his stepfather; his mom was in the back of the car. She couldn't look at him without crying, she says.

She gave him a recording of "I Hope You Dance."

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance ...

And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance ... I hope you dance.

In response, the then 18-year-old recruit told his mother, "Mom, you have lived your life teaching me what I need to do. I'm gonna be just fine."

Then the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11 and Darren Vogt's world and the world of many other young servicemen who had signed up in peacetime changed.

Two months later, Spc. Vogt shipped out - first to Pakistan, then to Afghanistan.

The 187th was the first conventional infantry army battalion to deploy in Operation Enduring Freedom, says Capt. Brian T. Beckno, Vogt's commander, by phone from Fort Campbell.

Vogt was part of Operation Anaconda. The mission was to destroy al Qaida and Taliban forces in mountainous eastern Afghanistan.

Vogt and his fellows were mortarmen. Their job is more than just pulling a trigger. There's technology involved.

"These kids are very, very smart," Beckno says.

Although their training served them well, they had never fired live rounds before they got to Afghanistan. There hadn't been time during training.

Was there danger?

"They were literally in harm's way on a daily basis," Beckno says.

It's every parent's fear.

In December, a 2,000-pound bomb landed in between Vogt's mortar platoon and a rifle platoon.

Although Vogt doesn't talk about specifics, he says his unit did what it was supposed to do. He was prepared for the physical challenges of his duty.

"I'm in real good shape. They just train the hell out of you."

The soldiers endured temperatures that ranged from 140 degrees during the day to 15 below at night at an elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level. Vogt described his post as a big icy rock. They had plenty to eat, and he says the food - canned and MREs ("Meals Ready to Eat") - was good. "We had trouble with water freezing," he says.

But he says he can't feel sorry for himself. He chose infantry, he chose the 101st. "I was just doing my job there."

He won't say much else about it.

"It became a very human experience. If we all stuck together, we'd all be OK," Beckno says of the unit's time in Afghanistan.

Did the experience change Darren Vogt?

He's more patriotic, he says. "I look at things a little differently."

What things?

"Family, life in general."

That family, particularly Vogt's mom, waited. Toward the end of his six-and-a-half-month overseas mission, Kathy Hall was calling airlines to see if her son had a reservation to come home.

With the help of Jack Hall, Vogt surprised his mother at the front door of her home - in full uniform - on June 7. He had flown standby on the last flight. The plane was full, but a World War II veteran gave up his seat to Vogt.

"I remember," he told the young soldier.

The Halls' Smithsburg home had been bedecked for months in yellow ribbons, red white and blue lights and American flags. A party celebrated Vogt's homecoming and all the holidays he had missed.

Vogt's family sees a change.

He's more grown up - he's mature, says Tim Vogt.

"He's done real well for himself," says Jack Hall. Now he knows how to make decisions.

Beckno is disappointed that, right now, Vogt doesn't plan to re-enlist when his two-year tour is done.

"He has great potential to do good things for the army," the captain says.

Darren Vogt's parents both mention that he has saved all of the money he's earned. He wants to go to college - to teach.

"He went away a little boy and came back a man," says Kathy Hall.

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