Local soldier tells Rotarians of experiences in Afghanistan

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Soldiers like Dean Nyitrai spend most of their time in a warzone concentrating on staying safe. The rest of the time they spend worrying about what's happening back home with their family, he said.

"You worry about what's breaking down today," he said. "You wonder what your wife is dealing with in your absence. You worry about your children."

A soldier's family occupies his mind daily, he says.

Lt. Col. Nyitrai, 44, has spent over half his life as a soldier. He is currently in his 27th year as a U.S. Army Reservist. Serving with a reserve unit out of Independence, Mo., he spent a year in Afghanistan (2005) and returned from a one-year stint in New Jersey in September of 2007.

He is employed as an auditor with the State of Arkansas and has lived in Trumann since 2000 when he began work in Northeast Arkansas. He's glad to be back home with his wife, Nikki, a housewife, and two daughters, Faith, 14, and Breanna, 15.

While in Afghanistan, he served on the southern border of the country and trained troops of the Afghan National Army. Two American soldiers would go on patrol with approximately 50 Afghan soldiers.

Nyitrai is a tank commander who helped train the Afghan soldiers and also ran missions with them. The U.S. has trained between 25,000 and 40,000 soldiers thus far and plans to train 70,000 soldiers before the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

Nyitrai said there were between 1,000 to 1,800 soldiers who were responsible for training the Afghan soldiers.

"The remainder of the 18,000 U.S. soldiers in country are support staff," he said.

"The Afghans are glad to have us there," Nyitrai said. "We got rid of the bad guys for them."

Suicide bombers were beginning to be used in Afghanistan when Nyitrai left there in 2006. The local roads were already dangerous because of IED's (improvised explosive devices) planted throughout the country's many dirt roads.

"There is only one paved road in Afghanistan," he said. "It is one big road that loops through the country." He says traveling any road in the country is dangerous. "You may travel one hour or may be on the road for a 12 hour mission. There is no sleep while you are on the road."

When soldiers are on the road, he says they must always be prepared for trouble.

"The Afghan kids always come running to you," he said. "A soldier has to be prepared for that."

"The kids run towards the convoys wanting you to throw candy and toys to them.

When soldiers see kids running from the convoy, they stop the convoy," he said. "You turn the convoy around then. These kids sense danger and run away from it. If they're running, they've seen something you haven't seen."

The troops work long hours in the war zone, Nyitrai says.

"We work long hours so we don't have as much time to think about home," he said. "We deal with at home problems while we're over there, too…worrying about our families."

Afghanistan is a desolate place.

Most of the buildings in Afghanistan are mud huts.

"The people don't have much," he said. "The Afghans don't waste anything. They burn trash and small bushes to keep warm. There is no firewood."

There are only four large cities in the country. The city of Kabul is slightly larger than the city of Jonesboro, he said. Most villages are small and surrounded by mud walls. An average village would be around the size of the Trumann Country Club complex. The villages are governed by a village elder who acts "as a mayor would in a city," he said.

The country experiences extreme heat in the summer and plunging temperatures in the winter. "

One summer day it hit 140 degrees," Nyitrai said. "In the winter, the temperature can be below zero. You're always cold."

The climate is similar to the climate of Montana in the United States.

"Soldiers are wearing a 40 pound jacket and carrying 80 pounds of equipment every day," he said.

It makes for an uncomfortable day in the extreme heat and cold.

The circumstances a soldier faces in Afghanistan make it uncomfortable and dangerous. "It is what it is. The conditions are not good," Nyitrai said.

Nyitrai is happy to be back home in Trumann, he says, but would not hesitate to return overseas if ordered to do so.

"They pay me to go fight a war," he said. "Everything we did over there was about staying alive."

"People ask me why I do what I do," he said. "I tell them that I can live in Trumann, and know that no one is going to bomb the house next door. I believe that we must take the fight to them or they will bring it to you."

"Why do I do this? I'm trying to defend a nation," he said. "I'm proud to serve and I feel honored to serve."

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