Sgt. Jose Aguilar goes where the action is.
The Johnson High School graduate has spent 10 years in two branches of the military and served tours of duty in two different war zones.
Wherever the Army mortar section sergeant goes, the heavy fighting seem to follow.
When Aguilar was serving in Iraq in 2005, insurgent activity was at its peak.
"We said, ‘Man, I hope we can go to Afghanistan where it’s nice and quiet,’" Aguilar said with a smile during a visit to Gainesville this week to see his family.
By the time he got to Afghanistan in July 2008, Aguilar knew to be careful what he wished for.
"Sure enough, we go to Afghanistan when it’s at its hottest time since the war began."
With conflicts and casualties slowing in Iraq, the fighting in Afghanistan has been heating up again in recent months. Aguilar recently wrapped up a year’s deployment in the country, returning stateside July 4. He said the two theaters of battle are "like night and day."
"It’s just a different fight," he said.
In Iraq, insurgents used improvised explosive devices more often and relied on long-distance attacks, he said. In Afghanistan, "it’s small arms and rocket-propelled grenades and fighting close enough to toss a hand grenade."
The terrain makes the difference, he said. Iraq is mostly flat, making it nearly impossible for the enemy to sneak up on troops. In the rugged mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the enemy has a strategic advantage.
The living conditions for troops also could be vastly different in the two countries, Aguilar said. In the large U.S. military bases of Iraq, there almost always were hot meals, air conditioning and Internet access. In the smaller outposts of Afghanistan, troops went weeks without electricity, ate meals ready-to-eat out of boxes and had to jury-rig a shower. The perimeter of one base was a single strand of barbed wire.
Of the old military mantra "adapt, improvise, overcome," Aguilar said: "We had to do plenty of that."
Aguilar, 29, the second-oldest of four children, grew up in Mexico and immigrated with his parents, Socorro and Teodora, to the U.S., first to Florida, then Georgia, where he became a naturalized citizen.
Aguilar enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating in 1998 from Johnson, where he was a standout forward on the school’s soccer team. After four years in the Marines, Aguilar enlisted in the U.S. Army because it gave him a better chance of being stationed closer to home. Aguilar, who has a brother in Texas, is stationed at Fort Hood near San Antonio when not overseas.
In Afghanistan, Aguilar oversaw a company mortar section, which fires 60, 81 and 120 mm mortars. Every patrol has small mortars for "immediate suppression," while the larger mortars are used in longer-range battles.
Aguilar said he was involved in "quite a few" firefights in his year in Afghanistan.
In Aguilar’s battalion, the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division, 13 men have been killed. His company lost one soldier. But the casualty rate was higher. Half of his platoon of 30 soldiers was wounded in fighting, some more than once, he said.
Despite the danger, Aguilar has made it through his two deployments without a scratch.
"Somebody must be looking out for me," he said.
Aguilar believes in the mission, and demonstrated his dedication to it while still in Afghanistan by re-enlisting in March for another three years with the Army.
He said he likes the adventure, the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers and the bonds they build in adverse conditions.
"I have a great job," he said. "I get to blow stuff up and not get into trouble."
And he knows freedom comes with a cost.
"Somebody’s got to do it, and I’m just happy I can serve," Aguilar said.