HOMETOWN HERO ON LEAVE FROM IRAQ
- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
ELGIN Brock Eckstein was a high school sports star. Throughout high school, he excelled at both football and wrestling. His senior year at Elgin High School, 1999-2000, Brock, now 24, won the state heavyweight wrestling championship.
Former wrestling coach Rocky Burgess remembers not only the dedication and determination it took for Brock to win those meets but the adversity he overcame to become a champion.
"Yeah, he was tough. Determined. I remember he got a cauliflower ear wrestling. His folks took him up to the hospital and got his ear drained, and they taped him up. He went ahead and wrestled at state with this big ol' ear all bandaged up. And he won. It was a heck of a win," Burgess recalls.
After graduation, Brock enrolled at Eastern Oregon University and went to work at the mill with plans of someday owning his own business.
But, as with so many other young men and women, on Sept. 11, 2001, Brock's future changed. The attacks on his country only made him want to fight back, so he enlisted in the Army.
In January, Brock was home on mid-tour rest and recreation leave to be with his wife, Amanda, for the birth of their new baby. Brooke Eckstein was born Jan. 7 and joins a big sister, 4-year-old Aryana.
Brock and Amanda met online while he was serving his first tour in Iraq and were married in Colorado in 2005 before Brock's second tour. Amanda, who hails from Spokane, says being at home in Elgin with Brock's family for support makes it easier to be without him.
Although she admits she worries about him, the soft-spoken young woman adds she is very proud of her husband. Neither she nor Aryana seem to want to take their eyes off him as he talks about being in Iraq.
"During my first tour," Brock says, "I was stationed in the worst spot in Iraq al-Anbar, right in the middle of Baghdad."
The al-Anbar province is one of three incorporated in the infamous Sunni Triangle, which surround Baghdad City.
Brock's unit was running convoys in and out of Baghdad. They drove through a lot of the surrounding country and the more peaceful outer provinces, which, Brock says, are what folks here at home never see in the news.
"A lot more people like (American soldiers) over there than don't," he says.
Brock says the humanitarian work the U.S. military is doing in Iraq far outweighs the combat. During his first tour, his unit alone opened seven schools, opened hospitals and dispensed medicine to the sick and soccer balls to the children.
"I'd tell my mom what we were doing over there, and she'd say, Wow. We never hear about any of that.' One soldier does something and that gets put on the news. There are 150,000 troops over there, and the news gets a hold of that one thing. I don't think (the media) is reporting any of the good stuff," he says.
It was also during that tour that Brock had his first experience with roadside bombs while serving as a gunner on a convoy.
During training, Brock had distinguished himself as a marksman. As a youth, he loved hunting deer and elk.
"I've always been good with guns," he says.
That ability earned him the rank of specialist and the spot as gunner, operating the .50-caliber heavy weapon mounted on the Humvee.
"When that (roadside bomb) hit us, it ripped the Humvee in half," Brock recalls.
Miraculously, no one was killed, though Brock's lieutenant was severely wounded by shrapnel. Brock, being out in the open with no protection, says the sound of the explosion actually burst both his eardrums.
Initially, he was faced with an 80 percent hearing loss in his left ear and a 50 percent hearing loss in his right. He was also given the option to come home. He chose to stay.
"They took really good care of me. Now I only have a 30 percent hearing loss in my left ear," he says.
Brock says the sound made by roadside bombs is unbelievable and hard to describe. Although the military is always on the lookout for them, the smallest one can be hidden almost anywhere.
"In a pile of trash or a hedge you can't ever really tell. But sometime they're in such a hurry to get out of there, they do a lousy job of disguising them," Brock says.
And now, when driving around his own hometown, he says the sight of a cardboard box at the edge of the road raises his anxiety level.
"What I've been through, you never really relax. You have to be on guard all the time. Even in the green zone, the safest place there is, there are still some people you're never sure you can trust" he says.
On his second tour, Brock's platoon of about 18 men have been assigned as a personal security detachment to the battalion colonel. They escort him around the battlefield, in and out of the green zone wherever he goes.
"It's an honor the best job. Usually they give these assignments to the MPs, but the colonel said he wanted the best he could get, so he chose us," he explains. The young man grins proudly. "We're an exceptional platoon."
Brock's biggest frustration with the war in Iraq is not being there; it's being there with his hands tied to do the job he was trained to do. He supports the administration's new plan to lift the ban from previously off-limit sites, or what Brock describes as "havens for bad guys."
"There's a couple of spots in Baghdad where we know there are bad guys plotting all kinds of stuff. And we can't go in there and take them out," he says. "We're doing a good job with what we can do. But either pull us out or let us do what we need to do. This in-between stuff isn't working and (is) what's dragging this war out."
While at home on leave, Brock says local folks are hungry to hear what is really going on in Iraq, as well as eager to thank him for his service.
He still receives a lot of care packages from all kinds of people in Elgin, some of whom he doesn't even know.
"People have really been supportive," he says.
Besides being with Amanda, Aryana, his mom, Dianne Grief, and dad, Panther Eckstein, and the rest of his family and friends, Brock says the best part of being home is the easy, take-it-for-granted freedom.
"Being able to just go out and buy a soda pop. Stuff like that. Going where I want to go, when I want," he says.
When Brock's current tour of duty in Iraq is over, he hopes to get transferred from Fort Carson, Colo., to Fort Lewis, Wash., so he can be a little closer to home. By then, he hopes to have completed his associates degree in small business management. (He's been going to school online while in Iraq.) Someday he wants to own his own business.
But when his time is up in March 2009, he won't be finished with the military. He hopes to re-enlist with the 3/116th in La Grande. When asked what the Army has given him, Brock answers quickly.
"Well, for one thing, I've seen the world. I've been to Korea and Iraq, Germany and Kuwait. To Japan. And there's an education that I won't have to pay a dime for. And friends, some really good friends," he adds.
Brock attributes much of his personal success in the military to the discipline he learned as a Husky athlete.
"A lot of success in the Army is kind of like success in wrestling," he says. "You listen to your coach, and then you do what he says."