By Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson
Task Force Red Bulls public affairs
LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Sgt. Toby Hall, a team leader with Alpha Company, 413th Civil Affairs Battalion, didn't join the Army because he was used to the rough-and-tumble life of a rodeo cowboy.
His inspiration came from the patriotic opening ceremonies that marked the start of each rodeo.
"Before I joined, you'd hear the national anthem and hear the speaker talk about soldiers while I was trying to get all fired up to ride a horse or a bull," he said. "I'd think to myself, 'Man I'm nothing but a big sissy - they're over there fighting for my country and all I'm doing is getting on some horse that's going to buck for eight seconds.'"
"That was kind of a reason I joined," he said. "I wanted it to mean something more to me when I heard that song play. If it wasn't for us over here, I wouldn't be able to ride back home."
Hall is a civil affairs soldier deployed to Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam as part of Task Force Ironman. Appropriately, the task force is under the command of the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, a part of the 34th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, nicknamed the "Red Bulls."
Back home in Amarillo, Hall earns his living as a professional rodeo cowboy, competing in the bull riding and bareback bronc riding events. Possibly the only thing about Hall that doesn't scream cowboy is his height. He's about 6 feet tall, a good height for a movie cowboy, but not the ideal bull rider or bareback bronco rider's build.
"Most of those guys are between 5-feet-6 and 5-feet-8, 130, maybe 140 pounds," Hall said.
Everything else about Hall is the genuine article. He has a stockpile of 63 cans of smokeless tobacco in his room and always has a dip in his mouth. He has a deep voice with a bit of a Texan twang, and though he's polite and friendly, always laughing, he walks with a bit of a swagger.
His room is lined with cowboy magazines, Louis L'Amour books, John Wayne sayings, pictures of family and friends and their horses and ranches. He can talk for hours about country music.
Hall said he's ridden in rodeos all his life, and he has the scars, bumps and bruises to prove it. About two inches above his right eye is a slanted scar from where a bronc kicked him in the head. His left pinky is mangled into a "U" shape and won't straighten out. His nose has been broken three times, his right wrist several times, as well as a finger, and ankle. He had a disc in his back push against his sciatic nerve and he fractured his right leg when a horse stepped on it.
Hall said the back injury was the worst, and often he'd wake up at night crying.
"To be a cowboy," he said. "You gotta be tough."
Hall said he loves the rodeo because it is a sport like no other. Unlike football, baseball and some other American sports, he explained, it is a sport that was based on work.
"Cowboys used to break horses and have contests to see who could stay on the longest," Hall said. "That's really how the whole thing started."
Another aspect of the rodeo that he likes is that money is not guaranteed.
"That's the difference between rodeo and other pro sports," Hall said. "You don't get paid to lose. Anybody and their dog can buy a permit to enter rodeos once they turn 18. But you have to make so much money professionally before you can actually get your pro card."
But above the thrill of riding a 2,000-pound animal and the uniqueness of the sport, Hall said it is the fellowship with the other riders he enjoys the most.
"The main thing I like about the rodeo, though, are the friendships," Hall said. "The cowboys you ride with are your lifelong friends. The only way to travel is by car or by plane, so we'd pile in as many cowboys as we can into a car to make it cheaper to get to the rodeos. We go rodeo to rodeo to rodeo together."
He said cowboys also help each other out, paying entry fees to the next rodeo for another cowboy who had a rough ride and didn't win any money at the last one.
"I've done it for other people, and I've had it done for me," he said. "Not everybody can be first."
Hall said he has two partners in life: his riding partner of six years, Mark Owens, and his fiancée, Staff Sgt. Jeanine Pollard.
Pollard, also a civil affairs team leader in Alpha Company, grew up on a ranch in Cloudcroft, N.M.
"We realized we liked each other more than friends," Hall said. "And we've been best friends ever since"
Even though they are deployed to separate parts of Afghanistan, Hall said, he talks to Pollard every night possible, noting they cross paths every now and again. Her family sends him a lot of care packages, he added.
Pollard said one thing she likes about Hall being a cowboy is she knows he is following his dream.
"I think it's very cool that he's upholding the tradition of being a cowboy," she said. "I like that he's a cowboy and he does what he loves, and I also like that he takes time out to serve his country as well."
Owens said meeting Hall revitalized his career.
"I was ready to retire when I met Toby," Owens said. "But we kind of feed off each other; I've had the best years of my career since we became traveling partners."
Hall said he often spent holidays with Owens' family, which he considers like his own. He said he especially misses riding with his friend this year, since Owens made the Prairie Circuit finals.
"Mark said he still likes to rodeo, but since I'm gone, it's not fun like it was," Hall said. "He said it's more like a job to him now."
Owens said he also misses his riding partner, but he is proud of the things he's doing as a deployed soldier.
"I think the commitment it takes to do what he's doing is awesome," Owens said. "Also, the selflessness is amazing; most rodeo cowboys don't have that level of selflessness."
He said the other riders support Hall whole-heartedly.
"Everywhere I go, I get stopped by somebody and asked how he's doing," Owens said. "The riders always talk about how great it is what he's doing over there."
In Afghanistan, Hall is not riding bulls. Instead, he is riding along with the Red Bulls' infantry soldiers, going out on missions to villages throughout their area of operations.
Hall, who joined the Army Reserve right after he graduated from college with a degree in agricultural engineering in January 2008, tries to assess the climate of the town by talking directly with its people.
"I try to find the village elder, or malik, and try to find out what they think of us," he said. "I also try to see what kind of problems the village has and if the enemy is there. I have my own way of doing that, that I've been trained to do, without coming straight out and saying 'Where's the Taliban?' I try to build a relationship with these people."
The relationship is key, Hall said, because the people need to know they can trust him and the coalition's soldiers. He said that in the past, civil affairs teams built projects in villages just to say they've contributed to the towns. He said his team tries to find ways to help the villagers improve their town and make it more stable for the long term.
"I try to ask them about their farms, livestock, wells, hydroelectric power, all sorts of things," he said. "Without us going in and talking to them, they're scared to death of us, and I would be too, if somebody was rolling through my town in big old trucks with big old guns on them.
"We let them know we're not here to hurt them, we're here to protect them from the Taliban and give them work so they don't have to join the Taliban," he continued. "I let them know we're not going to be here forever, and we're not giving out handouts. So we ask them, 'What can I do to help you out, so you can do this on your own?' I like that I actually get to interact with the people here, and see firsthand how they live in their homes."
Travelling to the towns involves stepping into any role needed in the convoy. Hall has served as truck commander or gunner on the missions. When the convoy or dismounted soldiers take fire, Hall puts aside his civil affairs role to engage the enemy.
"If somebody's shooting at us, I'm not going to stay back and be scared," he said. "We'll be right up with the infantry guys doing our thing."
As for the rodeo, Hall doesn't see himself quitting any time soon.
"It all depends on how tough you are and how long you want to keep taking that beating," he said. "I'm going to ride until my body won't let me any more."