October 2, 2014

Medina
Partly sunny
51°F

Standing tall

Members of Medina’s Ohio Army National Guard unit learned last year they would be deployed to Kuwait. Five citizen-soldiers shared their thoughts about serving their country and their days with family and friends before they said goodbye. This is the last installment in a four-part series. For a multimedia version of this story, visit wp2.medina-gazette.com/2008/01/11/photo-journal/standingtall/

From the moment the Ohio Army National Guard recruiter walked into Megan Aigner’s classroom, all the 16-year-old could think, sleep and breathe was the military. It didn’t matter she was only a junior, or that her test scores and high school grades were good enough to get her into college early — her determination was unwavering. She was going to be a soldier.

Fast-forward two years, and this 5-foot-2, 110-pound private first class is packing up her combat boots and a backpack almost half her weight, getting ready for a deployment to Kuwait.

One of 33 soldiers from Medina County being deployed this year, Megan will help with base and convoy security there as a motor transportation specialist.

However, before Megan could even set one combat boot in a Humvee, she had a battle of a more personal nature to win — her family’s approval.

Road to the Guard
While Megan’s mom, dad, stepmom, stepsister and siblings support every decision she makes, they weren’t an easy jury to convince.

Her father and stepmother, Mark and Louise Aigner, of Brook Park, were initially hesitant, wanting Megan to know what she was getting into and be sure it was what she really wanted.

“I’m here to guide her, not to control her,” said Mark, smirking at Megan, who was sitting across from him on the ledge of her aunt’s fireplace during their family’s Christmas Eve party in Old Brooklyn. “She’s a go-getter. If she makes a mistake, I’ll still support her.”

After pausing with emotion, he added: “I’m a shadow. If she falls, I will pick her up.”

Mark recalled taking his kids to the park when they were little, and then all of a sudden looking up in a tree and spotting Megan, hanging out on a limb.

“She has no fear … she’s ready to take on the military,” he said with a chuckle. “She’ll probably come back and be a general or something.”

Nancy Rozar, Megan’s mom, said she expected Megan to follow her brother Brandon and go to college early, so telling Nancy she wanted to join the National Guard came from left field.

“Meggie had to convince me,” Nancy said over a cup of coffee, just days before Megan’s departure for Fort Hood, Texas, where the soldiers will get certified on the jobs they’ll be doing in Kuwait.

“When you raise your kids, you hope they’re strong and independent, have a good head on their shoulders … and get on the right path.”

Even Megan, who was living with Nancy in Lodi and attending Cloverleaf High School at the time, hadn’t planned on joining the military, but rather, to be filling prescriptions as a pharmacist.

But when the recruiter came and told her about the training and benefits such as college tuition aid, she was hooked.

“It tied everything together,” she said. “I wanted to do something not everybody else does. (The military) just makes you an overall better person.”

So, Megan did her research, had recruiters talk with her parents and spent a good chunk of her energy bantering with her brother about her decision.

“When she first told us she wanted to join the Army, I was probably one of the biggest opponents,” Brandon, 22, said. “We got into some heated arguments … I challenged all her reasons. When she signed the papers, made up her mind, I supported her 100 percent … but until she made that decision, I wanted to make sure that’s really what she wanted.”

As he sat next to his little sister, playfully nudging her side with his elbow, Brandon said he always tried to be the protective older brother as they grew up, but when he went away to Toledo for college, it was difficult to fulfill that role.

“It’s hard enough being the protective older brother from two hours away, let alone another world away,” he said. “She’s strong and determined and doesn’t let anyone push her around. As much confidence as she had in herself (before), now she has strength behind it. I don’t think I have to be that protective older brother anymore.”

Megan’s older sister, Samantha, 26, said she sees her 18-year-old self in Megan all the time and knew that if the military was what she wanted to do, she would do it.

“She’s me when I was her age, so I see myself in her all the time,” Samantha said, eyes smiling as she looked at Megan. “She knew what she wanted young, (but) us being protective of her, it was hard for us to understand at the time.”

Brandon said though the three of them clashed at times, they bonded as a team when it mattered.

“As much as we would fight amongst ourselves, we always struck together against an outside force,” Brandon said with a laugh.

“These three live off each other,” Nancy said, shaking her head, struggling to find the words. “They have a connection her dad and I cannot penetrate, they have a tightness … you can’t get through it.”

For Nancy, whose father and three brothers were in the military, the concept of her daughter joining wasn’t scary, just unexpected, she said. She added Megan impressed her with her thorough research and ability to drive her point home.

“She brought recruiter after recruiter over,” she said. “She really made a huge effort to pull her point across … because she knew my name had to go on that piece of paper.”

Megan’s stepmother Louise, who has been in the family for 14 years, said she has mixed emotions, especially now that Megan will be gone a year.

“I’m very proud of her. I think I realize more what’s going on … I’m still waiting for (it to hit) him,” Louise said, motioning to Mark. “I know what (America is) doing, why we’re doing it. I support her in anything she does.”

Megan’s stepsister, Alycia Tortelli, 22, who also has close ties with Megan, said she was excited when she heard Megan decided to do something to better herself and has nothing but pride for her doing what she believes in.

Training
After taking the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, an entrance test, and scoring 89 out of 99, Megan spent her 17th birthday at a hotel in Cleveland getting ready to swear in the next day.

She said the test basically indicates what a person is qualified to do, and she picked motor transportation specialist, then chose to do a split-option program that allowed her to do basic training in El Paso, Texas, and obtain her truck driving license the summer before her senior year.

“Any vehicle the Army has, I can drive,” Megan said, wearing a smile of confidence and a glint of pride in her eyes.

Megan then when to the University of Akron for her senior year of high school and, in June 2006, she was off to Fort Jackson, S.C., for boot camp.

“I love it. I knew I wanted to do it, but I’m relieved I like it this much,” Megan said about her training. “I don’t know where I’d be without it. I’m still motivated, I’m still anxious to learn. You can always get better in (the military). It pushes me to get to the next level.”

She added: “The training helped teach you how to assess a situation, adapt to it, overcome it and drive on.”

“She’s thriving on the discipline,” Nancy said. “She has so much confidence in her training and in herself. She dug her heels in and made an effort and learned. I’m very proud of that. She’s absorbing everything she learns.”

But discipline and training wasn’t all Megan discovered at Fort Jackson.

It was there she met Pfc. Katrina Self, a girl who quickly became her best friend, “adopted sister” and battle buddy.

In the military, Katrina explained, everywhere you go, you go with someone, and a battle buddy is usually that person who always has your back.

“From the time we’d wake up to the time we went to sleep, we were side by side, every day,” Megan said of their 10 weeks at Fort Jackson.

And while the two had to separate, Megan back to Ohio and Katrina, 19, to California, their bond was indestructible.

Katrina, who was doing military funerals at the time, was growing restless and yearning for something more. She told her unit she wanted to be deployed.

Shortly after, Megan told Katrina her unit in Medina was scheduled for deployment, so both women talked to their units.

“One thing led to another and then I had a plane ticket,” Katrina said, adding she was able to do an interstate transfer from the California Guard to the Ohio Guard.

Since then, Katrina and Megan moved in with Samantha and her fiancé in their apartment in Strongsville and spent the holidays with Megan’s family.

“It’s my first holiday away from home,” Katrina said. “(Megan’s) family has adopted me, like, literally.”

Sitting on the couch on Christmas Eve with Mark’s family scattered throughout both floors of the two-story house, Katrina was teased, joked with and treated as though she’d been there her whole life.

She said while she keeps in touch with her own family religiously, it is nice to know she now has one in Ohio, too.

“(Katrina) is my battle buddy in civilian life as well as military life,” Megan said. “My best friend, my battle buddy, my sister.”

Bittersweet
Whether it was attending the Guard Christmas party; or snowboarding at Boston Mills Ski Resort with Katrina, Megan’s friends and a few other soldiers from their unit; or going shopping and disco dancing; or spending the holidays with family, Megan made the most of the days leading up to her deployment.

Megan and Katrina also went back to Fort Jackson to celebrate the new year, visiting with Katrina’s brother, who is in the Marines and stationed in North Carolina, as well as meeting up with old friends from boot camp.

And during the Guard Christmas party, Megan was presented an Army Achievement Medal for helping her fellow soldiers pass one of their classes by explaining concepts in a way they better understood.

It was during this ceremony the Brunswick American Legion Post 234 presented a blue two-star banner to Barb Demczyk, in honor of her sons Joe and Andy, who will be deployed with Megan.

The Blue Star Banner program, for mothers in honor of their sons and daughters serving the country, has been around since World War I, said John Prior, Americanism chairman of Post 234.

When Prior found out his stepson, Staff Sgt. David Garrett, would be deployed with Megan’s unit — Company G of the 237th Brigade Support Battalion — he was inspired to honor all the mothers of the soldiers in the company.

With the go-ahead from company commander Capt. Timothy O’Connor, the American Legion presented 123 blue star banners, funded by the women’s auxiliary at Post 234, to the mothers of soldiers in Company G.

“On Dec. 9, we did a symbolic presentation to (Demczyk), as a representative of all the Company G mothers,” Prior said. “This is not a new program, it’s been around. It’s just being reinvigorated.”

Nancy recalled her own mother having blue star banners honoring her brothers in service, but the thought of being in those shoes one day never crossed her mind.

“I would never have expected to get one, to be in that position,” she said. “And now I have two — Megan’s and Katrina’s.”

But the mood turned bittersweet in the days leading up to Megan’s farewell.

Packing for Texas with French-tipped fingernails while her combat boots sat next to a pair of stilettos on her bedroom floor, Megan tucked in a family scrapbook compiled by Louise and other family members. A boost in morale would be just a page turn away during her deployment.

“It’s kind of going to be a relief because of the anticipation,” Megan said of the deployment. “I’m anxious to get the experience of being in a different country, learning a new culture, developing a relationship with my fellow soldiers.”

And while Megan and Katrina will miss their families and friends immensely, they are glad they will be at one another’s side during their mission.

“I was going to go by myself in a unit I didn’t know anyone,” Katrina said. “What better than to get deployed with somebody dear to my heart, who has my back no matter what. It just makes sense. I’m anxious as hell to go.”

Nancy said her biggest prayer this year is for strength, especially with Samantha getting married in Italy in July, Brandon graduating from college and Megan in Kuwait until next year.

Louise said she’s been filled with mixed emotions, crying and laughing throughout the past couple of weeks.

Simultaneous feelings of sadness and excitement have flowed through Alycia in the recent weeks as well.

“It is bittersweet, but I’m really, really proud of her to do something she really believes in,” she said, adding she’s glad she’ll be able to keep in touch with Megan electronically in the coming months.

“I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet,” Mark said of Megan leaving. “You worry about (your kids) all the time. My biggest concern is keeping in touch with her when she’s gone.”

Farewell
With immediate family from both sides at the farewell ceremony the morning of Jan. 4 in the Medina High School Performing Arts Center, Megan sat with the rest of her unit as words of inspiration were delivered by speakers like state Rep. Bill Batchelder, R-Medina; U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Cleveland; Medina Mayor Jane Leaver; command Sgt. Maj. Albert Whatmough; and O’Connor.

“It’s a time of anticipation, it’s a time of saying goodbye,” said Whatmough. “Thank you for answering your country’s call. We’re part of the operating force … our country needs us. They can’t fight the war on terror without us.”

O’Connor added the friends, family and loved ones of all these soldiers are what make them whole.

“You will be far away from your loved ones,” he said to the sea of soldiers in uniform seated before him. “Take strength in knowing that we love you.”

He added thanks to the community members and family members of the soldiers for their unwavering support.

Then, to the tune of “forward march,” Megan, Katrina and all their fellow soldiers marched out of the auditorium, with the piercing sound of bagpipes inciting emotion throughout the room.

“I’m going to miss her terribly, but all three of us have Skycam, the Internet, e-mail and video conferencing,” Nancy said. “It’s the path that was chosen for (Megan) and she’s done everything she can to make sure it’s the best.”