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He's Back to Baghdad after Surprising Family

Brian Hopkins with his sister Deanna VaskasHis surprise visit was spoiled by tarrying too long in Wyalusing where Deanna spotted him.

He looks relaxed, tanned and fit. You might take him for someone who has recently vacationed on a tropical isle. We all know there hasn't been much sun to go around in northeastern Pennsylvania this rainy, dreary summer, and indeed Brian Hopkins spent this summer—and spring for that matter—in warmer, sunnier climes.

But Iraq is no place to take a vacation, especially in the uniform of an American soldier. Hopkins, a 32-year-old husband and father of two young boys, is down to his final few days of leave. On Saturday he'll begin his flight back to Iraq and the dangers he faced on a daily basis in that country. His job is to provide security and escort to "subject matter experts." He can't really go too far into what that term means, because it is classified information.

"Sometimes I don't even know what they do," says Hopkins, a staff sergeant and squad leader, who notes that it is really none of his business. "My job is to get them there and pick them up. We're a mobile collection team."

But for a couple of weeks in August, he got to come back to Bradford County, with a week's hiatus to Canada sandwiched in between. It was a surprise he pulled off quite well on his parents, Dave and Judy Hopkins, and other family members. His leave was arranged to coincide with an annual family get-together north of the border. His parents, aunts, uncles and cousins had no idea he would show up there last week, and he had his folks believing his leave wasn't likely to come until December, barely three months before the end of his scheduled year's tour of duty.

"The hardest part was lying to my mom," he says with a grin. "But the surprise was worth it."

His sister, Deanna Vaskas, who is an advertising representative for The Rocket-Courier and The Rocket Shopper, wasn't supposed to know either—not until her brother returned from Canada anyway—but he made the mistake of tarrying too long in Wyalusing after arriving home and Deanna caught him in the act.

It was a tearful reunion and Brian says Deanna was able to keep the secret from the rest of the family until he pulled off his Canadian surprise.

Hopkins, who joined the National Guard right out of high school, is assigned with Bravo Company, 2-103rd Armor. He notes that when he joined the guard he was in the infantry, ended up in armor and is now closer to being military police. Actually, he is not with an MP unit, as is another local guardsman, Ben Chamberlin.

"We're called the Ready Team and I guess you can say we're sort of convoy security," he notes. Stationed at Camp Slayer, located, as some of its denizens like to say, "in beautiful downtown Baghdad," the buildings formerly serviced Saddam Hussein's Baath Party loyalists. Hopkins points out that "we even get to swim in Saddam's pool."

Indeed, Camp Slayer, which serves as home in Iraq for the northeastern Pennsylvania-based 103rd Armor, is not a bad place to live. They have access to telephones and a computer room means the ready availability of the internet and emails back and forth to loved ones back home. There is a gymnasium and recreation center with big-screen TV's and pool tables. It is a different world for the modern warrior, but that doesn't make it any less dangerous when they are out on the streets. That is, after all, a big part of the job for this Wyalusing Valley High School graduate who grew up in the peaceful village of Camptown. He and his 12-person team are out once or twice a week in their armored Humvees doing their job.

"When you are out there, you have to keep your head in the game," says Hopkins. "You let your mind wander and it can mean your life or that of someone you are responsible for." The streets of Baghdad, particularly certain sectors, are dangerous, with threat of insurgents or terrorists around every corner. Most of their assignments are in the area they call "the Green Zone," with side trips to danger areas like Fallujah. Hopkins says you get used to it, and it is a mindset to which you learn to adapt. If you don't, the stress might bring you down.

Getting a leave to come back home and see his family in the middle of his tour is something Hopkins really appreciates. There is only one regret about coming home. "We get pretty close to each other over there and you come over here knowing they are still over there fighting." Since he was one of the last of his team to take his leave, it wasn't a major guilt trip for him.

Does this leave policy, which is bringing soldiers home in droves this summer and fall, only to return to finish up their tours, interrupt the continuity of their missions?

"When you leave, your job has to be picked up by someone else," he concedes. "It gets done. Teams even share personnel to help with that, and there is usually someone else on your team who can fill in for you."

Overall, he feels that breaking up a soldier's tour with a leave is good for morale, something to look forward to. Who, after all, would not take an opportunity to be back home with your family—in Hopkins's case, wife, Atisha, and sons, Brady, three and a half, and Daylan, one?

As for life in Iraq, his experience is that "70 to 80 percent are friendly and all most of them want is food, water and money." He can't help but being sympathetic to their plight, particularly seeing how it affects the children.

"It is really hard to see that," he confesses. "It gets me thinking of my two kids and what it would be like for them if they had to live that way."

But for a few days in August, he was able to escape war for a while and spend time with those kids and remind himself how lucky they all are to be Americans.

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