Bullets whizzed over the compound of U.S. Army infantryman Ross Donaghay.

Stationed in Afghanistan, the 21-year-old E4 Specialist was enjoying one of the few chances he gets to speak on the phone with his girlfriend, Ellen Gauthier.

He told her he had to go – there was something he had to take care of.

It was a taste of home interrupted by the reality of a soldier – a combination the three-year serviceman recently faced again as his month-long leave drew to a close on Sunday and he returned to his base in Georgia.

But home was good to Donaghay. The Canyon Del Oro graduate visited with loved ones. He watched football. He and his father teed off on the golf course – all reminders of the freedoms enjoyed by the Americans that he and other soldiers protect.

“It’s sort of weird,” he said. “I can go get McDonald’s, I can go get a Red Bull, I’m driving a car, I do not have to wake up at obscure hours of the night, and I’m surrounded by people I love.”

It’s a stark difference from what he grew used to in a more than a nine-month tour of Afghanistan, which he admits took some getting used to.

During the summer months, the weather there averages between 115 and 120 degrees, and has peaked at 135 degrees. There are no road laws.

Women, he says, are afforded little to no freedoms. Children, who always ask for chocolate, are sometimes the same ones to throw rocks at passing military vehicles. 

In what is an often-hostile environment, Donaghay has been involved in numerous combat episodes.

“It’s scary, but muscle memory just kicks in,” he said. “I have been training for this for two years prior to deployment.” 

Come December, Donaghay can check the military off his to-do list as his three-year term draws to a close. He plans to use a GI bill to enroll in Pima Community College, and later, the University of Arizona, where he will study criminal justice with the ultimate goal of joining the FBI.

For now though, it’s goodbye for another five months. Even though he is not being deployed again, the goodbye is never easy.

“It’s the worst feeling ever,” said Gauthier. “When he’s gone, I’m counting the days until he’s back. When he’s back, I’m counting the days until goodbye. This time is the final countdown, though.”

Despite the scares that came with his deployment, Donaghay made it through his tour in a certain comfort. 

Comfort that came from words his father told him when he was first deployed.

“He told me, ‘I know you’re going to come home because there is a guardian angel on your shoulder all the time – I saw that when you were born,’” said Donaghay.

Comfort that came in knowing he had his fellow soldiers whom he could trust with his life, and who trusted him with theirs.

“They weren’t going to let anything happen to me, and I wasn’t going to let anything happen to them,” he said. “You’ll never have a friend like someone you deploy with. These guys save your life everyday, and nothing comes between that, and you’ll remember them forever.”

Though it’s something he must do, Donaghay understands the toll deployment, and even his return to base, takes on his loved ones. His family has been supportive throughout. His girlfriend has stuck by his side for more than three years.

“I’m so proud of him. He’s such a hard worker and I know whatever he decides to do when he returns, he will do well,” said Gauthier. 

Donaghay knows the worry Gauthier has gone through during his term in the Army. It makes him appreciate her more.

“She’s a trooper,” said Donaghay. “She’s stayed with me through it all, so she must be the one.”

Tears of joy, long hugs, and plenty of celebration await the young soldier’s final return to his hometown – a place Donaghay can’t wait to return. 

Nevertheless, Donaghay knows he’ll never forget the Army or his brothers in arms.

“No matter how many times I may have said I hated this, I will miss it,” he said. “I’ll be that old guy with grandchildren still telling all my stories. I’m very fortunate for our country.”

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