Even after war injury, Lincoln soldier is willing to deploy again
Story and photo by Kelsey Haugen, NewsNetNebraska
It’s 4:21 a.m. on April 20, 2008. The eight soldiers in the U.S. Army artillery unit pile into a military Jeep in Taji, Iraq, heading north. The darkened road makes it difficult to spot enemies.
Suddenly, a deafening blast shatters the silence. The soldiers fly in every direction. His adrenaline through the roof, Specialist Justin Ren has no idea he’s injured. It’s not until a combat medic notices his leg has snapped in two places that he begins to feel the searing pain.
When the Lincoln native first deployed overseas in 2005, he was just a kid – 19 years old. In the beginning, the only danger he faced was losing his own life. But now, Ren has a new family to worry about: his girlfriend Charity Morgan, their 11-month-old son Jacob and Morgan’s 4-year-old son Joseph from a previous marriage.
“Before, I had little risk,” said the 25-year-old Ren, who has been to war twice. “Now it’s about her and the kids.”
Duty to the Army
Returning to combat would mean more near-death experiences. More nights spent waking up in a cold sweat after reliving shots fired, people killed.
Yet, Ren re-enlisted and would choose to deploy again to fulfill his duty to the Army and to support his family.
Although he and Morgan, 26, have only dated for 11 months, they’ve been good friends for more than six years. She knew Ren back when he enlisted at age 18, when he realized he wouldn’t graduate from Lincoln Northeast High School.
“In high school, I did some stupid things,” Ren said. “Stopped caring about stuff, turned toward the drug scene for a bit. I just smoked weed all the time.”
He didn’t realize those bad choices could potentially ruin his life – until the day a classmate was stabbed to death by a man high on methamphetamine.
“It was a wake-up call for me because that’s a path I could’ve taken (hard drugs) if I didn’t get out of the place I was in,” Ren said.
A family of veterans
At that point, he wanted to get clean and get an education, which were big factors in him enlisting. It also helped that his brother Jonathan wanted to join the military. Ren chose the Army and his brother the Marines.
When both sons enlisted in 2004, their parents were honored, especially since they are both Navy veterans. Although Ren’s mom, Sandi, was once in the military, she never deployed like her husband, who fought in the Gulf War.
“I felt helpless not knowing if (Justin) needed anything, not knowing if he would come back alive,” said Sandi Ren, who became a homemaker after she served in the Navy.
After Ren finished training and was stationed in Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, he deployed to Afghanistan. He left in January 2006 for eight months. Although trained for artillery, which means firing from far away when other units need backup, the Army needed him instead for infantry – a more dangerous job involving face-to-face combat. He went through expedited training, cramming six months of preparation into just two.
In Afghanistan, Ren didn’t suffer any major injuries and overall, found his experience there to be much less eventful than his trip to Iraq. On Dec. 25, 2007, Ren landed in Taji for an 18-month deployment.
“It happened to snow, and it was the first time it snowed there on Christmas Day in a long time. So that was a touch of home.”
As snowflakes blanketed the ground and trees, making Iraq look a lot less foreign, the soldiers eased up a bit for a couple days.
But soon, another explosive hit their artillery vehicle. After that, Ren and the others received orders to post up their guns and remain stationary for three months. That’s when the group became really close.
“Your buddies are protecting you and you’re protecting them, “ Ren said. “Most people call it brotherhood; I call it a bond. They would actually die for me.”
Not taking life for granted
Luckily, the first explosion didn’t cause any injuries. But the second one, when their Jeep was hit on April 20, was a different story.
“That was such a close call; realistically, I could’ve died,” Ren said. “In a sense, we’re all prepared to die when we deploy. But when you actually have that potential of losing your life, that’s when it hits you that it’s real.”
After his broken leg eventually healed, Ren decided he would no longer take life for granted.
Although there were no casualties within Ren’s artillery group, some of them did get injured. And then there were deaths of soldiers outside their unit, including two of Ren’s good friends.
“Both of them were hit with an IED (improvised explosive device) and killed, and I couldn’t even react to it at the time, because if you let deaths affect you while you’re at war, you endanger yourself and others,” Ren said. “Suppressing that pain was the hardest thing I had to do.”
Dealing with emotional pain
In basic training, soldiers receive rigorous training to become both physically and mentally tough. This desensitizes them to emotional pain, so when they lose buddies at war, they can hold themselves together for the time being. Often, it isn’t until they return home that they can finally talk about and attempt to cope with their traumatic experiences.
“(Ren) told me some really bad stories when we were hanging out and drinking, and he got … teary-eyed,” said his best friend, Evan Oaks, 25. “It takes a special kind of person to be able to handle some of the things he’s seen.”
Like Oaks, Ren’s brother Jonathan speaks highly of Ren as both a soldier and a brother.
“I’m kind of an asshole to him sometimes – maybe it’s because I’m a Marine – but I love him,” said Jonathan Ren, 26. “Even though he’s younger than me, I really look up to him. I don’t think he knows that.”
The return home
After a long 18 months, Ren returned to Lincoln on March 22, 2010.
“I remember appreciating the smell of the U.S. – something people take for granted,” he recalled. “I remember I took a shower for three and a half hours that day. I needed to feel clean, both physically and mentally.”
Once he was home, Ren stayed up for 96 hours straight, partially because he was used to getting only four hours of sleep each night – and also because he was having a hard time dealing with the pain of war.
“He said he’d wake up reaching for his gun sometimes,” Oaks said.
Morgan noticed his difficulty, too.
“I think some stuff just sticks with you,” Morgan added. “I know he went through things he doesn’t want to talk about, so I simply try to be there for him, even if it means just sitting there in silence with him.”
In war, soldiers can’t show emotion if friends die; it’s a sign of weakness. But when they return home, they can open up to chaplains about how they really feel. For Ren, this military counseling was helpful in coping with the pain.
“I still have nightmares sometimes,” he said, “but I’m doing much better.”
Something was missing
Upon returning home, Ren decided to take a break from the Army. He began dating Morgan, and then, in November 2011, their son Jacob was born.
But on May 1, 2012, Ren re-enlisted because he felt something was missing in his life. He knew Morgan would always be there to listen, but she would never completely understand his war stories and sorrows the way fellow soldiers do.
Ren’s new job is supply, which means making sure soldiers have all the food and equipment they need. In this position, he could still be deployed, and he understands how hard it would be on Morgan, Jacob and Joseph if he left again. But to Ren, enlisting in the Army meant a commitment to serve. He feels it’s his responsibility to go.
“It’d be hard on us if he left, especially since he would miss a lot of Jacob’s milestones,” Morgan said. “We’d miss not having him here every day.”
The effects on family
Asked about the possibility of Ren’s death if he went to war again, Morgan’s ever-present smile faded, as if that thought was crossing her mind for the first time. But in fact, it’s a constant dread.
“I don’t want him to go, because you hear about soldiers passing away over there all the time,” Morgan said. “I think about it a lot, but I try not to sometimes.”
She paused, looking down at their giggling baby, with his head of thick brown hair and blue plaid outfit. “I don’t want Jacob to be fatherless or me to be alone.”
When Ren thinks about deploying again, he feels guilty for asking his girlfriend to be fine with him being away from home for months and risking his life.
“People don’t realize that soldiers train to be away from friends and family. Significant others are the ones who have to adapt to being by themselves,” he said. “They carry the biggest burden of all.”