KILLEEN — Retired U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Roboam “Frenchy” Brea still gets choked up when he thinks back to all the times he missed family holiday celebrations while he was deployed overseas or away on some other assignment.
“I got to call (home) a couple of times. That was really nice, but it also could make things worse, in some ways — especially if your mother started crying. I remember talking to my mom one time and her telling me to come home,” said the Haiti-born Killeen resident who retired in 2008 after 23 years and seven months’ service, pausing as his voice choked with emotion.
“I think I missed the holidays at home three or four times, at least. It was sad. Even though you had your (fellow) soldiers there with you, you still miss your family and want to hear from them. Sometimes you couldn’t even talk to them, depending on the area you were at.
“It brought you down, but everybody tried to stick together because we were all in the same spot. They always did the best food that they could, man. Turkey, ham … the works. They put out a big spread for us. Not just the little dishes that we got every day. And that showed they cared for us. It really helped bring us closer to each other. We just supported each other the best way we could.
“Even so, you still had to continue with the mission. Like if you’re on guard duty, you get to eat but you still have to pull the duty. One of your soldiers or one of your leaders will bring you your meal. So you sat there and you ate, and kept your eyes on the enemy.”
Those big, bad soldiers may have been there to help support each other during tough times like major holidays, but they also enjoyed trying to lighten the mood a bit with gift-giving that included the occasional practical joke.
“Some of us gave gifts,” he said. “You know, little bulls—t gifts. Some places, you could walk out the gate and buy stuff from the locals. We’d also play tricks on each other and stuff like that.
“One time, I came into my quarters and there was a present sitting on my bunk, all wrapped up nice and neat. I opened it up and it was toilet paper. It had a little card in there with the guy’s name on it, and it said, ‘Since you talk so much s—t, here’s some toilet paper.’ It was all in fun.”
Sometimes the emotion and homesickness got to be too much. Then, it was time to get away for a few minutes and let the tears flow.
“Oh, yeah. We cried sometimes but we did that when we were alone taking a shower,” Brea said, laughing. “It’s painful. Especially when you get cards from the family saying they wish you were here and stuff like that. That kind of brings you down, but you’re still glad you received the cards.”
Brea moved with his family to the United States when he was seven years old. He got involved in some fairly serious gang activity as a teenager and was headed for big-time trouble when he decided to join the military after graduating high school in 1982.
He attended basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., where he also took AIT (advanced individual training) to become a mechanic. After spending several years looking for trouble on the streets of Chicago, he needed a little attitude adjustment when he got off the bus the first time with the other recruits.
“It took me a while,” Brea said, “but I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do what they ask me to do. I gave my mother my word.
“I got into some confrontations. I had to throw some blows a time or two. People were from different hoods somewhere and they looked at me and saw this little, small, light-skinned guy. I looked at them, like, ‘Hey, you don’t know my background, brother. Don’t do that s—t to me.’”
His first duty station was Fort Campbell, Ky., as a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division. After three years there, he was assigned to Germany, then back stateside to Fort Hood. He also served missions in Haiti and Korea, as well as several deployments to the Middle East.
Some of the things he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan still haunt him to this day.
“Oh, yeah, I saw some s—t over there. I was point man on one mission, going through this village, and we hit this corner and there was nothing but dead bodies in the street. People with their heads cut off; blood everywhere. You could smell that copper smell.
“The majority of them were kids, and no one we talked to (to try and get information) would tell us anything. They were scared. They knew somebody would come after them if they spoke, so … that sticks with me to this day. It still hurts.”
After he left the military, Brea headed back to Afghanistan for a year to do some contract work, then came back home to central Texas and found a job he loves as a trainer at a gym owned by friend, Hector Ruiz.
Now that he no longer has to be concerned with being shipped around the world during the holidays, Brea says he remembers very well what that feels like, and he wants the troops serving far from home to know their sacrifices are not being taken for granted.
“I just want to let all the service members out there know they are loved and they are missed,” Brea said. “If they’re alone at Christmas, tell them that this combat veteran knows how they feel, and they have our full support.”