For Memorial Day, honoring young New York soldiers

(Credit: Urbanite)

Spc. Juan Arango, 24, of Elmhurst, served as a gunner in Afghanistan with the New York National Guard last year.

By Heather Haddon

Memorial Day evokes images of weekend cookouts, but the holiday strikes a personal chord with New York's thousands of veterans. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan soldier on, an increasing number of young city dwellers have gained an intimate perspective on combat, along with the quieter struggles of transiting home.

Spc. Juan Arango, 24, Elmhurst

Manhattan gridlock can feel uncomfortably similar to traffic in Kabul. But here, drivers do not defer to American Humvees and pedestrians need not be frisked for bombs.

“I get a lot of flashbacks when I'm driving,” said Juan Arango, a National Guard grunt with the 69th Infantry Regiment. “You have to control the feelings, even though you want to ram that yellow taxi off the road.”

The Colombian native fought on the frontlines of Afghanistan in 2008, the deadliest year for foreign soldiers since the war began. Shortly after his brigade arrived, 400 Taliban fighters and 700 criminals escaped from prison. His job as a gunner on long-distance convoys became harrowing.

“I had my mother’s face in mind all the time,” Arango said. “We were just waiting for attacks to happen.”Arango lost one of his best friends, a Bayside father whose name, Jasson, lives on in a tattoo. But Arango returned home unscathed to his parents and wife in January. Then, new struggles arose: crowds elicited paranoia; a door slam caused him to bolt out of sleep.

Arango's outlook has improved in the past two months and he has applied to law enforcement jobs.

“You learn a lot from people over there,” said Arango, recalling that little boys often wore dresses for a lack of pants. “You appreciate every piece of clothing you have.”

Sgt. Annmelissa Harvey, 29

Annmelissa Harvey had hit a wall in juggling full-time work and college. She found a break from the burnout, unexpectedly, in the military.

“When I first joined, there hadn't been a war and no one expected a war,” said Harvey, who enlisted with a Bronx Army recruiter in 2000. “When the war started, then I was scared.”

The Jamaica native shipped out in 2002, the year before the war, with the 3rd Corps Support Command, helping to run logistics at the Balad military base in northern Iraq. She moved everything from “toilet paper to military parts.”

The ceaseless heat and 14-hour days made for a trying three years. But Harvey learned to relate to people of all stripe. Out in Iraq, her livelihood depended on it.

“You had to trust people like you knew them forever,” she said.

Harvey returned home safe in 2005, her mother ecstatic to count her “10 fingers and 10 toes.” She enrolled at Hunter College, joining 114 other student veterans. Next Thursday, Harvey graduates with a degree in social work.

“It taught me how to take one day at a time and be thankful,” said Harvey, who hopes to work in social service. “It changes your whole perspective on life.”

76: New York City soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan since start of wars

74,000: New York state residents deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11

10,700: State soldiers currently in Iraq or Afghanistan

240,000: Total number of living New York City veterans

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