ONALASKA, Wis. - Spc. Andy Towner, 21, quickly took off his tan combat boots as he entered his parents' home Tuesday. Greeting him were his parents, grandparents, brother, girlfriend and golden retriever.
"Those boots are broken in," Towner said, emphasizing the word "in." He'd worn them with few breaks for the past year as a gunner atop a Humvee in Iraq as part of the 2-127 National Guard battalion, just home after a year of driving convoy security missions.
Most of the soldiers, including the majority of those originally with the Onalaska-based 32nd Engineer Company, returned to civilian life Tuesday after being demobilized at Fort McCoy in neighboring Monroe County.
Today, Towner will trade his boots and fatigues for more familiar attire - football cleats and shoulder pads - and start practice as a middle linebacker for the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wis.
Last year, his teammates honored his service by wearing No. 50 stickers on their helmets. This year, No. 50 will be back on the field, and a bit more hungry after endless hours on the road spent daydreaming of chasing tailbacks instead of dodging roadside bombs.
"When you spend most of your life sitting in a Humvee with the same two guys, there's only so much you can talk about," Towner said. "Basically you stop talking and just make fun of each other."
And, he said, you start thinking about your life.
"I didn't think about the partying at all," he said. "I'd think about the times I skipped class, the times I skipped lifting (weights). Those things kept me up at night."
He said he's determined not "to skate by" anymore, to make the most of his college days, on the field, in the classroom and with friends.
His parents, John and Rita, said they wished for a little longer visit but support his immediate return to campus.
"Plus," his mother said, "I know where he is all the time now."
While Towner said he savored the feeling of being home with family, news of the death of 23-year-old Senior Airman Adam Servais, also of Onalaska, hit hard. The two had played hockey and football together when younger.
"He died serving his country," Towner said, "but the biggest thing soldiers worry about is their families. I can't say I'm sorry enough to (parents) Pete and Sue Servais."
Towner's girlfriend, Ashley Mills of Onalaska, will join him at UW-Stout, where she's a marketing major. They kept in touch as much as they could, going on "dates" via the computer screen, and talking on the phone longer than allowed.
"I had to remind him to call his mom, too," Mills said, smiling.
"I learned that (telephone) goodbyes with her must last at least two to three minutes," Towner said.
Mills turned 21 on Thursday, the day she greeted her boyfriend at Volk Field at the battalion's homecoming.
"It was the most emotional day of my life," she said. "I was giggling and crying at the same time."
"I spoiled all the fun," Towner joked.
Towner spent his 21st birthday Nov. 3, 2005, driving an overnight convoy mission through Iraq. One guy radioed to the others that it was Towner's birthday. A few sleep-deprived soldiers mumbled "Happy Birthday." And the mission rolled on.
"It's OK, though," Towner said. "It probably saved me a hell of a headache."
Dan Simmons can be reached at (608) 791-8217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.