When Army Sgt. Victor Faggiano was growing up in Manchester, N.H., he always knew the military was the choice from him in life.
"I pretty much always wanted to join the Army since I was playing with little green Army men, and I never saw myself doing anything different," he said.
He remembers watching films like "To Hell and Back" and "Hamburger Hill," and knowing he wanted to be an infantryman fighting off enemy forces.
Faggiano, an assistant team leader with Company C, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, grew up wrestling for his school, living what he explains was the average American life. He lived on the outskirts of Manchester with his parents and his brother, Mario. His family has lived there for generations, since his great grandparents moved there.
Faggiano, whose family is a mix of French-Canadian and Italian ancestry, initially joined the Army in July 2003, almost immediately after graduating from high school. Following basic training, javelin school and airborne school, Faggiano was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy, where he served in a long-range surveillance unit. While assigned to the airborne unit, he often trained in Germany, observing targets and conducting surveillance and long-range reconnaissance.
In March 2005, Faggiano deployed with the 173rd to Afghanistan's Helmand province, where he traveled as part of a five-man team, carrying heavy rucksacks into the mountains to observe enemy forces.
"It was physically very hard," he said.
He often stayed at small combat outposts with a machine-gun nest and a small team.
More than halfway through his deployment, his unit was re-assigned to Kandahar province to augment a few platoons from the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He went from being a radio-telephone operator roaming through the mountains of Afghanistan with his five-man team to being an assistant gunner on an M240-B machine gun team, clearing villages and conducting various combat operations against the Taliban throughout the province.
Afghanistan was a different world for the young soldier. His team often found itself in open areas within small villages, fighting off the Taliban.
"In Afghanistan you always knew where to go to find the enemy," Faggiano said. "You knew you were going to get in a fight there."
Though Faggiano enjoyed his experiences in Afghanistan, upon re-deploying to Italy he decided it was time to leave the military and take on another life.
"I was a pretty young dude, 21 years old," he said. "I didn't really think of my future being in the Army. I got deployed, served and did the whole infantry thing, and thought, 'That's it, I guess.'"
Faggiano went to the University of New Hampshire, but one semester was all he needed to know it wasn't for him.
"[College] didn't really do it for me as I thought it would," he said. "It wasn't exciting."
He then tried working for a landscaping company for some time, but "that was a dead-end job," he said. "All the guys who had been there for a while had never really moved up." Then he found himself talking with many of his friends from the 173rd who were gearing up to head back into Afghanistan.
"I kind of felt I was missing out," Faggiano said. "In college, everyone seemed so detached from what was really going on in the world, and I still had friends doing this. I kind of felt guilty." Soon, he found himself back at the recruiting station. Faggiano knew he wanted to be an infantryman, and chose Fort Campbell, Ky., as his duty station upon re-enlistment.
"I ended up picking Fort Campbell because I heard a lot of good things about the unit," Faggiano said. "I knew the 101st [Airborne Division] was deploying real soon, and I wanted to get back in it as quickly as possible."
Faggiano joined Company C soon thereafter, and just as he wanted, he quickly was appointed as an assistant team leader.
"It was real tough going from sitting on my couch at home to having a five-man team of soldiers who are ready to be molded into infantryman who are getting ready to deploy to Baghdad, Iraq, one of the most dangerous places in the world," Faggiano said. "It was hard at first, but I feel real comfortable with it now."
In October 2007, Faggiano deployed to northwest Baghdad, where his company controls the Jouadine, Ramaniyah and Katieb areas of northern Ghazaliyah.
The soldiers interact with the local populace, search for enemy weapons stockpiles, gather information on the whereabouts of enemy forces, and continue to help build the local economy through grants and community projects.
"We are doing a lot to maintain security in our zone, and are trying to assist the Iraqi security forces and help them get better at being able to secure their own [area of operations] and support them as they need it," Faggiano said. "We help the population as much as possible -- build their economy, defend the zone and conduct offensive operations when needed."
When Faggiano first arrived in Iraq he was a bit surprised and thrown off by the number of people the soldiers mix in with daily. In Afghanistan, villages are sparsely populated, and soldiers and enemy fighters often outnumber village residents, he said. Iraq, with large numbers of civilians mixed among the soldiers and the enemy, is an entirely different experience.
Interacting with the local populace is key to the soldiers' success in northern Ghazaliyah, Faggiano said.
"It makes no sense to not take into account the large amount of people," he said. "You can't leave them out of it. You have to take into account humanitarian aid and how people feel about you."
But with enemy fighters mixed in with the local population and the ever-present danger of improvised explosive devices, Faggiano said, the soldiers must always be vigilant.
"When you go out in sector during the day, everyone is waving at you," he said. "I can be talking to a little kid on the street one moment, and all of a sudden Checkpoint 11 gets hit or there is an IED. It's a difficult task, politically and militarily, to solve this militia problem in Baghdad."
The soldiers do what they must to track criminals among the people. They continue to target and build information on these men to remove them from the streets, continually making the Iraqis' life a lot better, Faggiano said. Activity within their area has tapered off significantly, but when the intensity was high and the soldiers were fighting enemy forces, he recalled, it was the most exciting part the deployment.
One night in March, when the soldiers were receiving heavy enemy contact, his team was on a dismounted patrol and was going to set up an observation post.
"I was walking point, and we made contact, and I got to maneuver my guys the real, old-school way," he said. "It went well -- by the book. We had suppressed them, and [the enemy] had to break contact."
The opportunity to lead troops in combat is what Faggiano wanted to do when he rejoined the Army.
"I enjoy being able to run a team, mentoring soldiers on the right way to do things," he said. "I really enjoy being in a team with guys who all rely on each other. I really like my job as an [assistant team leader], because I still get to do what the soldiers do, but still lead them."
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Smith, a native of Burlington, N.C., said Faggiano is a very approachable leader who continually leads from the front.
"He is constantly trying to learn," said Smith, Faggiano's platoon sergeant. "He is very approachable, and good with the soldiers. The soldiers come to him with their problems."
Smith said he believes Faggiano's experience from Afghanistan, his constant motivation and good attitude help him and his soldiers succeed.
To this point, Faggiano said, he has yet to regret his return to the military. But he doesn't regret getting out the first time, either.
"I'm glad I got out the first time, because if I hadn't, I really wouldn't have tried to improve," the 23-year-old soldier said. "Now I am older, and I can see the advantages of being in the Army."
By Army Sgt. James Hunter
Special to American Forces Press Service
Army Sgt. James Hunter serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.