TERRE HAUTE —
For 11 years, Staff Sgt. Eric Martin served his country, with four tours of duty in Iraq.
He was there when the U.S invaded Iraq, and his job as a U.S. Army combat engineer called for him to help clear the route, including two mine fields.
He’s also looked for IEDs [improvised explosive device]. “We were the guys out there going five miles an hour down the road in front of everybody, trying to make sure we’d find the IEDs” so others didn’t get hit.
In 2011, “I was part of the last trip out,” he said. He flew a flag from his RG 33 (mine resistant ambush-protected vehicle), and he gave the flag to his grandfather last Christmas.
But today, Martin has completed his military career and he is celebrating Thanksgiving in Terre Haute with his family, including his mom, Melanie Van Winkle, and grandfather, Ray Harney.
“I don’t even remember the last time I had Thanksgiving with everybody,” said the 30-year-old in an interview at his mom’s home, where he will live until he figures out his next step, either college or a civilian contract job that takes him to … Afghanistan.
It’s a good-paying job, he said.
The family will gather at his aunt’s house in North Terre Haute. Martin also is looking forward to seeing his 5-year-old daughter, Kamryn, who lives in Wisconsin; he’ll see her next month.
Van Winkle is “ecstatic” to have her son home. “He has served our country well,” she said. Martin is a 2001 graduate of Terre Haute North Vigo High School and left for basic training in October of that year.
Until he decides his future sometime after Jan. 1, he’ll be helping his mom and stepdad with work on their house and his grandfather with work on his home.
Also, “Everybody in the family has something they need done on their car,” Martin said. “I’m kind of a jack-of-all trades when it comes to a lot of things.”
Before he joined the army, Martin “was a very laid back, quiet kid,” his mom said. “He didn’t really cause me too much trouble — just basic teenage stuff. I never expected him to join” the military.
When he returned after his first tour in Iraq, she noticed a change. “He went in as a boy and came out as a man,” she said.
For his first two tours, she would constantly watch television news to learn what was happening in Iraq. “I made myself sick from watching TV all the time” and worrying about him, she said. She discourages others with loved ones serving in war zones from doing the same and constantly monitoring the television news.
While he joined the military right after 9/11, Martin said that was not what caused him to join. “One of my buddies [Nick Caldero] wanted to join the army,” Martin said.
Caldero asked his friends if they wanted to join, also. “I said okay,” Martin recalls.
He believes he made the right decision. “It’s supported me the last 11 years,” he said.
While the job he did was often dangerous, it’s not something he dwelled on. “I just never really thought about the fact this is what I’m doing right now and at any given time something could happen. I think that was due to a lot of the training we did,” he said. “I didn’t have to think about it. It was second nature.”
He did experience culture shock when he first arrived in Iraq, and Iraqis’ attitudes toward Americans “went up and down a lot,” he said. Initially, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, “It was instant joy.”
Other times, “They wanted us gone.” Also, the poor behavior of a few soldiers would “ruin it for the others,” Martin said.
Whether the United States accomplished what it set out to do remains to be determined, he said. While Iraqis are able to make choices now, “I guess we’ll see in time how their own government runs things,” he said.
Today, Martin and his family will celebrate Thanksgiving and his safe return home.
A sign in front of his mother’s home reads, “Welcome Home SSgt Martin.” It features artwork on a white sheet, including a yellow ribbon, a military tank, hearts and a flag.
Thanksgiving “was the most missed holiday for me,” Martin said. “So it’s going to be good.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@