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Turning out the lights

"Turning out the lights" Continued...

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

"It is like we are dating again," says Addie, who outranks her husband. "Every night he goes back to his barracks, and I go back to mine."

The last time Holmes, the regiment's commander, went to Iraq, he missed the senior basketball season and the high-school graduation of his oldest son, Hulon.

But in the summer of 2008 Hulon stunned his father over a dinner at a Tennessee Cracker Barrel with the news that he too was joining the 278th.

"I didn't think it would be fair that he had to be the only one to go this time," explains Hulon. But while Jeff Holmes will be in charge of 3,000 troops, Hulon Holmes, as a specialist, will be one of the regiment's lowest-ranked soldiers and in one of its most dangerous jobs: vehicle gunner.

"You can't lock the ones you love in a vault. I try not to dwell on the fact that one of those gunners is my son," Holmes told me, adding that he watches his son from a distance and will not interfere with his unit. "I look at all my soldiers as my sons and brothers. They are all family."

There are even some sisters in the 278th family: Spec. Mary Wolfe, 27, of Memphis, Tenn., is a rare find in the military-a female gunner. She says she is comfortable with weapons, having grown up deer hunting with her dad in Paris, Tenn. Still, despite her excitement about the job, she hasn't told her family that she will be manning a weapon on Iraq's roads.

"I'm keeping them on a need-to-know basis," she explains.

While half of the regiment already wears combat patches below the U.S. flag sewn on the sleeves of their uniforms, a youth movement that includes Hulon Holmes and Wolfe has filled out the rest of the 278th. Many of the lowest-ranked soldiers weren't even teenagers when terrorists attacked New York in 2001.

"I remember watching it on TV in middle school," recalls Pvt. Michael Grooms, 21, from Kentucky. "If I had a chance back then, I would have joined up. I just had to wait my turn."

But not all this youth is inexperienced: 26-year-old Spec. Justin Horn of Trenton, Tenn., joined the military in 2002. He is about to be deployed for the fourth time. Horn, whose first child is due in May, says he endured ambushes, mortar attacks, and roadside bombs during his three previous deployments-all to Afghanistan.

"I'm going to try to stay out of trouble," Horn said of his first trip to Iraq. "I'm hoping that I haven't run out of my lucky charm."

Nobody in the 278th has had a longer string of luck than Staff Sgt. Michael Maupin. One look at the long military resumé of the 58-year-old, 145-pound spitfire soldier shows that the regiment still has its share of grizzled veterans. Despite his age, he recently earned a perfect score on his physical training test: running two miles in 15 minutes, completing 100 pushups in two minutes, and 78 sit-ups in two minutes.

But that should come as no surprise because Maupin already owns a Silver Star for charging a hill and not falling back even after taking shrapnel wounds to his head. He also owns a Bronze Star with a V for valor even though he can't remember the details that led to that award. The war where Maupin earned these medals: Vietnam.

"I'm just an average guy going into his fourth combat zone," says Maupin, who joined the military as an 18-year-old back in 1969. He is now taking orders from officers who weren't even born then.

Bald-headed with a grey-dappled mustache, Maupin promises that this will be his last year in uniform.

"When I get back, I'll be 59," says the machine operator at a textile company. "So if this is my last hurrah, I'm going to try to make the best of it. It's almost like a race when you can see the finish line."

Reaching the finish line, that's what the entire Army, with the 278th turning out the lights, is hoping finally to do in Iraq.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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