FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan –
“When I lost my job, that was really hard for me,” recalled Sgt. Nikko Moreno, a 39-year-old Danville, Calif. native now residing in Bowling Green, Ky. “I’d worked so hard for so many years and built up to have nothing.”
Moreno has come a long way in the past few years since his journey began in California. There, he suddenly found himself unemployed from his job in Construction Management by the recession. To fully understand Moreno’s journey and how he ended up in Afghanistan, however, the story gets a little longer.
Before rejoining the military in the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 3123rd Engineer Detachment, 206th Engineer Battalion in Madisonville, Moreno spent about seven years on Active Duty as a combat engineer. While there, he served in Korea, Germany, Bosnia, Ft. Lewis, Wash. and even attended the prestigious Sapper school at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.
“When I initially joined [the Army], I joined the Reserves, and I was at the reserves for a very short time,” Moreno recalled. “They said that the unit was being deactivated, so I had a choice to either go Active Duty or to get out.”
“So I decided to go Active, and the first place they sent me was Korea. After that … I was shipped up to Ft. Lewis, Wash., and I was there for a couple years,” he continued.
“Then I was deployed to Bosnia with 1st Armored Division, and was there for all of ’96, and then came back, was home in Germany,” Moreno noted. “We went back in ’98, then I was home in ’99, and when my time came up for reenlistment, they were going to Kosovo. I just, I had a lot on my plate, a lot of directions I wanted to go. I chose to get out.”
After leaving Active Duty Army life behind, Moreno returned to California.
“After I got out, I went home and started dating my now wife, Shannon, and started working,” he recalled. “I finished college, but while I was in college, I started working in construction, and what I did, I was doing a Network Engineering degree–and I just didn’t really find that it was what I liked to do, and I ended up going back to construction.”
“I liked the way it was hands on and detail-oriented, outside,” Moreno noted. “You know, we did the whole thing for like the first nine years of our marriage. We bought a house, she [Shannon] got established in her career, I got established in mine, and then when the recession kind of hit California, it hit construction really hard.”
“I was laid off from my first job, I was able to pick up a second job as a superintendent with another company that I’d worked with, and after three months, I got laid off from that one just because there was no work,” he said.
“We’re the type of couple, that on weekends, we like to get out and explore. My father-in-law owned a house in Kentucky,” Moreno continued. “He came up to us and said, well why don’t you go check out Kentucky. I kind of laughed it off as a joke.”
“But given my experience on going a lot of different places with the military, a lot of the places I thought I wouldn’t like I ended up liking,” Moreno reflected. “So I went to my wife and said ‘well, why don’t we give it a try.’ We flew out in August , stayed for a week, and we fell in love.”
“We loved the people, we loved the area,” he described. “It was beautiful, it was green, there was a lot of things to do, and it really was the people. They were very courteous and very welcoming.”
“It’s such a contrast to California, where people can be so rude and so focused on their job or time or money, and it wore us out,” Moreno noted. “We left California Halloween and arrived at the house in November .”
“I ended up joining the Guard because I always–I guess, at that point in my life, the military was the only thing that made sense to me,” Moreno said. “I really believed in what it stood for, I believed in how I felt wearing the uniform, and I just kind of wanted to get just kind of control of my life again.”
After joining, Moreno took advantage of an opportunity to deploy southern Afghanistan as part of the Kentucky National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team 4, where he now serves.
“It was kind of nice to have the chance to be a part of the humanitarian side of a military mission … to kind of go out and help somebody that wants to make something of their lives,” Moreno described. “I am accomplishing my goals for coming on this mission. You know, I will have participated in something that makes a difference for people.”
“I think we’re making a difference to the right people,” Moreno noted. “There are people that are taking what we’re giving them and doing positive things. Of course there’s corruption, there’s that stuff too–but someone told me one time that even if you make a difference in one person’s life, it’s making a difference. So I do think we’re making a difference.”
Moreno offered some insights to the surprises of coming to Afghanistan.
“There’s actually a lot of green,” he noticed. “It’s actually a fertile place. I was completely ignorant about Afghanistan … but coming here I expected desert and I’m finding kind of fertile areas that congregate around a river valley.”
“Ignorance breeds hate, and I was ignorant about it. And now I see that not everybody is bad, some people are just like you and I. They just want to get on with their lives peacefully, and it’s enjoyable to watch these people and how resourceful they are to just kind of like work what they have.”
“They don’t have trellises for grapes or high-speed areas to process their stuff—they make everything they have,” he observed. “A bridge across the water isn’t some concrete pillars and planks. It’s roots and mud, it’s sticks and stuff. They’re very ingenious, and they’re very resourceful.”
“To be honest, my previous military experience was a lot different from this,” Moreno observed. “When we rolled into Bosnia, there was nothing established. We rolled into a muddy field, set up concertina wire, filled sandbags, built bunkers, built towers, we were really self-sufficient. We did everything pretty much on our own. It prepared me in that I was prepared for how bad it could be.”
“Here, it was kind of like coming to a catered party,” Moreno described. “There’s no mud, we have air conditioned and heated tents, there isn’t really a lot of suffering involved in the day-to-day stuff that we’re doing here.”
Family and friends back home have been supportive, according to Moreno.
“My family has been exceptionally supportive,” he noted. “For my wife, it’s new. We weren’t married when I was in the military before, so she’s learning. She’s really smart, my wife. She is able to adapt really quickly to what a situation requires—she kind of knows what to and what not to listen to.”
“My mom, you know, a mom’s a mom. She’s definitely worried for her son and the rest of us, and sees any war as negative, and wants us all home,” Moreno continued.
“Oh my gosh, they send me packages,” Moreno added with an excited smile. “That’s another new thing…the difference between my active experience and this is the technology, and care packages and things like that.”
“Before, I didn’t really get care packages. I’d get letters and stuff, and it was nice to get letters,” he recalled. “Now I get care packages, and I don’t get letters very much. They have Skype, phones, and they have Facebook, and all these internet media that we really didn’t back then.”
Moreno reflected on how his peers have helped him get through the deployment so far.
“That’s one thing I love about the military is that you always have brothers no matter what,” he said. “And it’s always diverse. If I’m feeling vulnerable, there’s a person I’ll go talk to that I know won’t put me down or take advantage of the fact that I’m like ‘hey man, I’m feeling weak.’ Or if there’s someone I want to joke around with, he’s there. There’s always a multitude of people and personalities you can go and talk to.”
“Being with this hodge-podge group, there’s a lot of stories that you can get to know people and find out where they came from and who they are. I really like that, too–just learning about people and what they’ve come up through,” Moreno continued.
“I met him [Moreno] at our very first drill,” said Lawrenceburg, Ky.’s Sgt. Bobby Sizemore. “My first impression of him was that he was a little different.”
“He wasn’t exactly the type of guy that I’m used to because I know he’s got a lot of vast experience,” Sizemore described. “Since then, we just started to click, so we’ve become good friends.”
“Before we left, me and my wife, Moreno and his wife—we also had Sergeant Randy Sewell and his wife, we all went out to dinner together,” Sizemore continued. “We were actually able to bond, our wives were able to meet, and that has created that support back home. Our wives stayed in touch, so it was just a good thing. They all get along really good.”
“Moreno’s very, very, very goal oriented,” Sizemore observed. “Once he sets his mind to something, he goes after it, and that’s inspiring. There’s so many people today that give up so easy when they don’t get what they want. I admire him for never giving up.”
“He’s got a big heart, and he cares for people,” Sizemore added. “That’s another inspiring feature about Sgt. Moreno, is just that he’s a good person overall.”
“Me and him, we’ve shared so much that he’s like a brother to me now,” Sizemore said. “He’s one of those guys that when you’re having a bad day, you can go to and talk to, and more times than most, he’s going to put a smile on your face.”
“He’ll be a lifelong friend. We’ve shared a lot of good things, a lot of bad times,” Sizemore added.
From California to Kentucky and Afghanistan, one could say the complicated journey continues for Sgt. Moreno and his many trades.