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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Editor's Note: This is the first story in a three-part series on students who completed military service in the Middle East. Part Two will run Wednesday.

As Adam Stout stepped off the bus and into the biting cold and blinding snow, the wind whipped against his face. He could see the Himalayan Mountains peeking over the base walls, the tops were barely visible. This was not what he expected.

When Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Adam Stout, a senior political science major at UF, got the call to go to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he expected what most people would: hot desert climate. But when he arrived shortly before Christmas in 2006, it was anything but warm.

Like most in the service, Stout knew he would get called eventually.

He said he was yanked away from UF in the "year of the Gators." While most UF students were celebrating on University Avenue, he was doing his best to serve his country. It wasn't always easy.

"Some days I would wake up and think about how much I wished I was back in school," he said. "You have such a greater appreciation for things when you have to be away from them."

Hidden Dangers

He didn't know what he was going into, he said. And he definitely didn't expect the base to be blanketed with active land mines almost everywhere, he said.

They were buried where he worked, near where he slept and where he ate breakfast every day. Afghanistan is populated with more active land mines than any other country in the world, he said.

Stout's job itself wasn't particularly dangerous. He never even left the base. In his terms, he constructed close air support on the runways and facilities for the F-15 Strike Eagles. The buildings on the base were in bad shape, he said. He had a hard time dealing with the weather while trying to get all the building facilities in working order.

He worked six or seven days a week for eight to 10 hours a day. The cold was never-ending. He battled it every day.

It was rough on him, he said.

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"Because at the end of the day, you don't get to go home," he said. "You go back to a temporary plywood box."

He faced the constant strain of the land mines and the occasional attack on the base by mortars (a technique used to launch small explosives over the base walls, rarely harmful to the base). But combating boredom was also a constant struggle. Every day he worked, went to the gym and then fell asleep. Then, he would repeat it again the next day. And then the next day.

But some days weren't so routine.

The Bombing

On Feb. 27, Bagram was one of the few air bases visited by Vice President Dick Cheney. The day Cheney was there, the base was also opened to the Afghani public so women and children could receive free medical care in an outer area of the base.

The base was attacked by a suicide car bomber the same day. The bomber drove the car to the main gates and detonated the bomb.

Stout was in the inner part of the base hanging drywall when he heard of the attack. He ran, sought cover and then had to play the waiting game.

"It's sad, but attacks happen all the time," Stout said. "You have to find a way to keep moving on."

The New York Times reported that at least three people died, one American soldier, one South Korean soldier and one U.S. contractor.

The base in Bagram, the largest in the country, is in an area where very few attacks had previously taken place. It still isn't clear whether the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, knew whether Cheney was at the base.

Holiday Respite

Stout also had to deal with spending the holidays far from his home and family. He missed Thanksgiving, New Year's, Valentine's Day and Easter. And right after he got to the base, it was time to celebrate Christmas.

Christmas was one of Stout's rare days off. He spent it crowded with the rest of his friends in one of the small plywood huts, about the size of an office cubicle.

The group did a white elephant gift exchange - a game where each person brings one gift and leaves with one randomly assigned one - while eating Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits, but all Stout got was a CD that he "wasn't too happy with."

"By that time we'd seen each other every day," Stout said. "It became a family in its own right. It made it more bearable. But I know my mind was definitely somewhere else that day."

Gators Days

But some days weren't so bad.

Like when the Gators won the football and basketball championships.

Stout sounds like a nostalgic grandfather when he talks about the trek he made to watch the football championship. He said he hiked through snow to reach where they were showing the game.

The basketball championship was also unique. Tip-off was at 2:30 a.m. At halftime, Stout had to get a regularly scheduled drug test and ended up watching the second half in the parking lot. Right after the Gators victory, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit the Himalayas, causing tremors all over the base.

"It was definitely from all the Gator cheers," he joked.

Stout rejoined The Gator Nation in Gainesville in May. He remembers the moment with a touch of reverence.

"I had chills when I stepped back onto campus," he said. "I have such a greater appreciation for things others will never have because of my experiences. You value it so much more."

He knows that he looks at everything in his life differently now. He said he's forgotten much that happened in Afghanistan, things that probably stood out at the time as big or important. But for now, the senior, who will graduate in the spring, said he's simply living the dream.

"A bad day here is 30 times better than a good day there," he said.

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