GUERNSEY – Just a handful of people knew what was about to happen two days before Thanksgiving in the Guernsey-Sunrise gymnasium.
Just before the second half of a girls’ junior high basketball game between the Vikings and Lingle-Fort Laramie, a young man wearing the unmistakable camouflage of a military uniform and a red beret walked through the gym doors and scanned the crowd, seeking some familiar faces…faces belonging to a pair of family members who had no idea that he was even in the same state, let alone the same building. Initially planning to be here, he had then told them that coming home for this holiday had been cancelled, just not possible – and that was that. Family members were clearly disappointed but in actuality, several knew better. And those who didn’t were about to get the Thanksgiving surprise of their lives.
Spotting one of them, the soldier headed toward the bleachers, and as a very unsuspecting mom was prompted by others to “check out that good lookin’ guy,” he began to smile. At first it was just a glance, but then full recognition hit her and she jumped from her seat, the emotion taking over as her son reached out for the hug neither will ever forget. As the entire crowd began to stand and cheer, a young girl was being carried across the gym by a family friend. Now also aware of what was happening, she jumped from one set of arms to her big brother’s, emotion overtaking her as well and she became the third member of the very recognizable homecoming scene that snags the heartstrings and evokes the tears of those present to witness.
From the moment a child is born, most parents and grandparents assimilate a protective role that will likely be present well beyond their childhood years. It is there by generational default – just part of the cycle of life. And that’s exactly the way it’s been since Jaden Christopher McDuffie came along in the fall of 1999. He and his younger sister Jozy have been blessed with not only supportive parents Cristi and Mark McDuffie, but a close relationship with his maternal grandparents, Sheen and Pat Conway.
Raised within those family bonds, Jaden learned independence, tempered by a sense of right and wrong and that although life needn’t always be serious, it was important to know just how to determine the proper time to lighten up or buckle down. It wasn’t always perfect or easy, but Jaden has grown to be his own man, a source of pride for those who have been there to watch and help make it happen.
But even though high school years brought typical teen experiences such as playing football, helping on the family’s ranch, hunting with his family and participation in hours of service and ag-related events through Future Farmers of America, Jaden began to seek out more. He was looking for a way to step up and explore some things that seemed to have been passions from very early on.
For many little boys, firefighters and soldiers are often their heroes and role models and Jaden was no exception. But as he matured, they became far less childhood fantasy, and closer, realistic life goals.
Living 14 miles from the closest fire department, any fire can be well out of control before help can be there. Even at the age of 12, Jaden was well aware of that danger and what it could mean. As the families were at grandma’s one day eating lunch during a summer lightning storm, he noticed what seemed to be a grass fire growing at one of their neighbor’s places and immediately said so. But it took him several tries to convince anyone else at the table – until it became much more obviously seen.
There was indeed a fire and that seemed to be one of the first experiences that pushed his interest in firefighting. And although 12-year olds can’t join a fire department, a 16-year old can and Jaden did. With connections to a Lingle-Fort Laramie teacher who served in the Jay Em fire district, Jaden began with online training and progressed quickly through classes in Wheatland and other training opportunities.
It wasn’t long before he was not only a fully-trained member of the Jay Em Fire Protection District, but had earned the distinction of being just one of two in that unit holding the “Red Card” certification. It allows him to respond to federal fires as well and requires extensive additional training. Those who hold it are well-respected by fellow firefighters.
With the Jay Em District operational only in the summer months, Jaden also joined the volunteer squad at Fort Laramie to help provide year-round protection for the families such as his who would otherwise be without.
His work with those fire departments exposed Jaden to a lot of things most kids his age aren’t. Responding to not only fires but vehicular accidents can make life get real quickly when you’re 17 and 18. For Jaden, it only widened his vision and desire to serve, putting him on the path that would lead to a very big step in his journey toward adulthood.
With many family members having served in several branches of the military, Jaden seemed to already have the makings of a soldier. Two of the biggest were his dad and his grandfather. At home he’s dad, but at Camp Guernsey, he’s MSGT Mark McDuffie, an Army Communications Specialist who will be one of a number of soldiers deploying overseas in the new year. Grandpa Sheen Conway was also active duty in the ‘70s and is now a proud Army veteran.
Jaden started actively researching and reading about the military and an opportunity to meet and hear Army Ranger Kris Paronto speak in Gering had a huge effect on Jaden. Paronto is an author and speaker as well as a former U.S. Army Ranger and CIA security contractor. He is known for his actions while part of the CIA annex security team during the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stephens and the CIA compound in Benghazi.
Family members say it was one of several strong influences on Jaden’s decision to sign on in the early enlistment program with the Army between his junior and senior year in high school. Following graduation last spring, Jaden enjoyed his final summer at home with his family and in August, reported to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training in the Airborne Infantry. He completed both his basic and airborne training and in October, moved on to his next duty station at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he is now a Private Second-Class and member of the 82nd Airborne, 1st of the 504th Red Devils. He seems to have found his niche and it is reflected in his Facebook account. His post on Veterans Day several weeks ago was especially telling:
“I left home at 18.
I learned to kill another human being before I learned how to do my taxes.
I’ve learned to care about someone else’s life more than my own.
I wrote my own will at 18.
Most nights I don’t get enough sleep.
I don’t get paid much either.
I don’t know the next time I will see my family.
I don’t know much really but what I do know is when others stepped down, I stood up and answered the call when others would not.”
Ready to go
He has already volunteered for deployment and is waiting to find out if, when and where that will be.
When it does happen, it’s likely his unit will be called to active areas such as Afghanistan or others, so the risks are real. But when asked if he has concerns or worries about those risks, there is no hesitation to express the way he sees it.
“No, I really don’t,” McDuffie said. “I am trained and I know there’s nothing I can’t do.
“It’s really the same feeling I got firefighting,” he said. “My military training, and experiences as a firefighter have prepared me. It’s an adrenaline rush, we have a job to do and we’ll go in and do it.”
His surprise visit home to see his family was something he won’t soon forget either.
“It was a good feeling to see everyone, but boy, mom really lost it,” McDuffie said. “But it’s all good and I’m glad we did it.”
Fully committed to the job and the cause, Jaden is on to the next and biggest challenges of his young life – but despite the justified concerns of his family, they know he will create his own successes. And nobody will be surprised by that.