When you’re sleep-deprived, walking patrols and sidestepping buried explosive devices, life takes on a whole new meaning.

 ”You grow up fast, ” said Lance Cpl. Kurt T. Fegan, with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Reserve. ”You’re always alert and always watching your back. It’s a faceless enemy. You walk up to one guy and he could be the enemy; you walk up to another and he’s a friend.”

Fegan is one of four Madison Area Memorial High School graduates who, months ago, stepped out of the quiet life of central Maine into regions of hot and volatile Iraq, where war rages on.

The four men, who had been fast friends growing up, assembled at the school last week after their return from Iraq. They talked about the war, how their friendships have endured and the brotherhood of Marines in battle.

Fegan, 22, a 2003 graduate of Madison, said Isaah L. Finney was his squad leader in Iraq – a friend he admired in childhood who became his leader in combat.

”He actually led us on our patrols, ” Fegan said.

THE MISSION

Their seven-month mission, Fegan and Finney said, was to take down insurgents, provide stability and security for the Iraqi people and bring their local army up to speed.

”There were a couple of times it was pretty scary, ” Fegan acknowledged.

Lance Cpl. Adam Rich, a 2002 graduate, also returned stateside last week with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Reserve. Rich said he doesn’t like to share battle stories, even with family members.

”I don’t like to talk about the grisly side of the mission, ” Rich said.

His longtime friend and adoptive brother, Lance Cpl. Jeff Hayden, with 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, nodded in agreement.

Hayden, the only one of the four who is on full-time active duty, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He will remain on active duty until Dec. 6 and then serve four years with the inactive reserves.

Hayden was in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold in the western Iraqi province of Anwar. His job was to help the Iraqis build their military and establish a police force.

”We had to recruit reluctant, afraid locals into a police force, ” he said. ”They’re too afraid to do anything unless we’re there helping them.”

FAST FRIENDS

Hayden, Finney and Rich have inked the permanency of their kinship on their forearms – tattoos of the initials ”J.I.A.” (Jeff, Isaah and Adam) and ” ’02” for the year they graduated from high school.

”We got it right after I came back from Afghanistan, before we shipped to Iraq, ” Hayden recalled.

When they arrived in Iraq, the four friends traded comfort for miserable heat and frequent trepidation.  Their automatic weapons became their constant companions. And feeling safe wouldn’t happen again until they were back on American soil.

”I don’t hunt at all, but my gun was my baby, ” said 23-year-old Finney.

Fegan said the big threat was the improvised explosive devices – bombs planted in the dirt by the enemy – aimed at maiming or killing the soldiers.

BROTHERS IN ARMS

There was huge comfort, however, in having a good friend watching your back.

”When you’re on guard duty out on the missions, we would always go to the post together, ” Fegan said of himself and Finney. ”It’s fun to have someone you can carry on a five-hour conversation with, someone you went to high school with.”

Rich and Hayden have an even stronger brotherly connection.

Rich was a junior at Thomas College when he learned that Hayden, a 2002 high school classmate, would be deployed in Iraq with the Marines.

Rich hadn’t planned to join the military. He was majoring in sports management at Thomas and was looking forward to a career in that field.

But he couldn’t bear the thought of living a comfortable civilian life while his adoptive brother was serving in one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. Rich joined the Topsham-based 25th Marine Reserve and found himself headed to Iraq as well.

”We’ve just been together for so long, it just felt natural, ” Rich said. ”I heard he was going, so I opted to go.”

Rich wound up in Fallujah, while Hayden was stationed in Haditha. It became Hayden’s turn to worry.

”I was always worried about him, because I had more combat experience and he didn’t know what he was walking into, ” Hayden said.

Fegan, who was beginning his junior year at Husson College when he was deployed, said he plans to return in January to begin the semester anew.

He said his outlook has changed forever, however.

”I already have a different lifestyle, ” said Fegan, adding that it will be difficult to share the same lightheartedness with the classmates he left behind. He said he is sure he will seek out the company of veterans like himself who have seen battle.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Fegan said he had once planned a career in criminal justice, but ”now my mindset has changed.” Action in Iraq, he said, has turned him in a different direction.

With 2 1/2 years of his six-year contract with the Marine Reserve remaining, Fegan said he has no idea whether he will be redeployed, but it is a real possibility. He does not plan to make the Marines a career.

Finney, on the other hand, said he may re-enlist. He did agree, however, that it was a real pleasure to return to his wife, the former Lori Michaud of Winslow, in time to celebrate their one-year anniversary Oct. 29.

Fegan said his stint in Iraq has changed the way he views the present and the future.

”One of my pet peeves, ” he said, ”is people who complain about things, like mid-terms, for instance. Before I was activated, this was serious, something you really complained about.”

Finney agreed: ”Things are a lot different over there. People worry about little things. (War) gives you more perspective on life.”

Hayden, whose wife, Kara, is eight months pregnant, is nearing the end of his four-year hitch as an active-duty Marine. Rich might be through with overseas duty, depending on circumstances with the war, and will remain for four more years in the reserves. He is hoping to become a policeman.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.