Three years ago Nathan Portnoy experienced one of the lowest points in his life: An unhappy young man searching for his independence.
Last week, he stood confidently before the monthly meeting of the McLean American Legion Post sharing stories of his three-month tour of duty in Iraq with the 29th Infantry Division, Virginia's historic U.S. Army National Guard unit.
Older men who had put on a U.S. Army, Air Force or Marine uniform and served their country in Korea, Vietnam or in peacetime, listened to Portnoy, of the youngest generation of U.S. veterans.
"Nate's talk to the Post was exciting and interesting," said Post Commander Glenn Yarborough. "All had been there and done that and followed his accounts in Iraq with interest and memories of their times in conflict."
Two years after graduating from McLean High School, Portnoy said “2009 was probably one of the lowest points in my life. I was trying to make myself a successful person. I was trying to find my independent . . I was not happy. I was not doing what I wanted to be doing." He was also laid off from his job.
His parents advised him to join the military. He chose the National Guard because "I could bring home everything that I learned. Combat lifesaving skills.That’s why I joined up.”
"99 percent of our time overseas was doing nothing," he told the gathering of about 30 --- veterans and their wives. "One percent of the time is where the stories come from.”
Also listening intently were four of Nate's best friends. The ones who had promised to take care of his mother if he didn't return. Now back home, he's caring for his mom who is recovering from breast cancer.
He went to Iraq as an assistant to the supply sergeant for the entire squad. They arrived at their base in southern Iraq in 140 degrees temperatures. At night it was 95 degrees.
“You just drank water constantly," he said. He drank about 8 liters a day. Then in November the temperature dropped to 60 during the day and 30 a night.
Their first mission was to deliver food and fuel to bases. Their last mission to help move the U.S. Army out of Iraq. His squadron was part of the largest movement of equipment ever, he said.
“We were the cowboy escort team, " he explained. “We were escorting commodities from one base to another." The danger "was not people shooting at us it was IED’s --- roadside bombs."
They drove MRAP's (Mine Resistant Attack Protection) vehicles that look like mini-tanks.You are either a driver or a gunner.
He was a driver. "You are sitting in the same seat for 14 hours," he said. If you fall asleep or mess up, "You kill three people, wreck a $4 million vehicle and screw up the mission.”
The escort team tracks every truck in the convoy and can text message each vehicle --- which means they can exchange jokes with each other.
“My one thin chance at death. . my one close call was because of prime rib. . . I was eating prime rib..." He choked and told his friend he couldn't breathe.
About 3 am three weeks before they left Iraq, his base came under a brief mortar attack.
He jumped from his bunk, "grabbed his gun, sandals and sunglasses and ran for the bunker” and stayed there for four hours.
He remains with the National Guard until Sept. 29. He hopes to return to school.
He is also now the youngest member of the McLean American Legion Post.
The 29th Infantry Division was the only National Guard Division to participate in the invasion of Europe, D-Day, June 6, 1944. The men of the 29th landed in a little piece of hell known as Omaha Beach and fought until the end of war in Europe. Traditionally the 29th is composed of men (and now women) from Maryland and Virginia.
If you are a McLean resident home from war, or know of a returning veteran, please let us know so we can share with the neighbors.