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Gainesville man marches in his family's footsteps
Juan Westbrooks, front row, right, stands with other members of the Cherokee Troopers when they were stationed in Kherwar, Logar province, Afghanistan. Wearing the dark green uniforms at left are Afghan soldiers stationed with them.


Listen as Juan Westbrooks talks about meeting other soldiers from Gainesville while traveling through a remote part of Russia.

Leaving for a war overseas isn’t what bothers Staff Sgt. Juan Westbrooks the most — missing his family is what he dreads.

“My daughter is 11 years old, and I might have been around for three years of her life,” he said. “I’m very lucky because she (Elizabeth) is such a good girl.”

He says his experiences overseas in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and South Korea, among other places, bring him back a changed man every time.

But his last tour in Afghanistan was rewarding, and some of his lasting memories are of the beautiful Afghanistan countryside and the people.

“Afghanistan is a beautiful place and people think that it’s all war torn and all that. It’s hills and they’ve got valleys and they grow grapes,” he said. “In the spring and summer time there’s more greenery ... in the wintertime it’s all ice and snow. It would be a great golf course.”

During Westbrooks’ most recent tour he was based in Kherwar, Logar province, in Afghanistan, where his unit, 371-Cav was on a support mission for a Jordanian field hospital.

“What I will remember most about my tours in Afghanistan is that they are just like us,” he said. “... just imagine that you were sitting in your house one day and someone knocked on the door and told you that you were growing your grass wrong — and they had guns. The people there don’t understand; they are just trying to live their life.”

Westbrooks recalled little Afghan boys who would play outside and get hurt just like the little boys in the United States, but their injuries were from different pastimes — like throwing rocks and falling off goats.

Seeing those similarities in American and Afghan children is why Westbrooks said he believes it is important for America to assist the Afghan people in the war.

“There’s no ‘When is it over?’ We’ve been in Korea since the Korean War and we’re still there,” he said. “We’re there until they tell us to go home, until we help the people enough and can stand on their own and do what they gotta do. We are there to help assist them and our job isn’t to rule or dominate it. Our role is to help those people get to where they need to be.

“It’s kind of like Iraq — we went there to help them to where they can stand on their own two feet.”

Westbrooks, a 1995 West Hall High School graduate, is now on leave at Fort Drum, N.Y., and has been there for five years.

He will leave in August for his third Afghanistan tour. This time he will serve as a flight medic, a new experience for Westbrooks. So far he has served 24 months total in Afghanistan.

In 1997, Westbrooks enlisted in the Army and went to basic training at Fort Wood in Missouri. From there he became a medic. But before enlisting, Westbrooks took two years after graduating from high school to find himself and see what the world was like.

Well, he didn’t like it; he said there was no hesitation when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He had grown up with both parents in the Army and was well versed in military protocol.

“Basic training was fun for me,” he said. “Everyone was having this hard time and I loved it because I was used to the rules from my family.”

Westbrooks’ parents, Arnold and Stephanie Watkins, said they are proud of their son. But, they still worry about him.

“In order to get through that, I try not to think about it,” Stephanie said. “They are committed to do their duty. I wish I could say, ‘Don’t go,’ but you can’t do that because it puts more stress on them.”

And no matter where he’s stationed, you never know when you’ll be reminded of home, he said.

For example, who could have guessed that he would meet fellow Gainesvillians halfway across the world, also serving in the Army.

On Westbrooks’ trip back to Fort Drum from Afghanistan, his unit made a stop in a small town Russia.

“I started talking to a guy and he recognized my name. And I recognized Cantrell, which is a pretty big name in Gainesville. And I started talking to him and he said, ‘We’re the Gainesville National Guard,” Westbrooks said. “... It was really ironic and odd, the fact that I was on my way out and they were on their way in.”