Wyzgowski returns from Middle East

Karen Danner
Home sweet home: Members of the Wyzgowski family are, from left, Nick, Mark, Lynn and Dave.

Mark Wyzgowski arrived back in Chillicothe Friday with a lot to tell his parents, Lynn and Dave, and his brother, Nick, a senior at Illinois Valley Central High School.

Wyzgowski spent September 2007 to February 2008 in the Middle East with the United States Air Force.

The 2004 IVC graduate, who played football, enlisted in June 2006.

Working in transportation, Wyzgowski is on his way to learning many skills that can serve him well in his future.

On his way

“I wanted to do something with myself at age 20,” said Wyzgowski.

After working from 2004-06 at Kirch’s Place in Chillicothe, Wyzgowski needed a change, and a direction.

Determined to pack his bags and head to Chicago and the naval base there, a stroke of fortune walked in the door at Kirch’s.

Jeff Wallin, a former Air Force recruiter, talked with Wyzgowski about his military choice and asked him to give the Air Force real consideration.

Given only a couple of job choices with the Navy, Wyzgowski opted to join the Air Force, where other opportunities existed.

In June 2006, he arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training.

July through October that year, he attended technical school training for a job in the transportation management office.

“Then I came home for a couple of weeks,” he said.

Next on his tour was Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M.

“I just worked (7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) and did my job,” said Wyzgowski. “We ship out cargo all around the world for any type of base that needs parts, like screws and bolts up to a Humvee vehicle.”

Almost one year later, Wyzgowski found himself headed to Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Change of lifestyle

“It wasn’t too bad,” Wyzgowski said of Qatar. “I worked 12-hour shifts six days a week. I kept busy.”

Al-Udeid serves as the hub for the entire Middle East, he said.

“Anything they needed for the war in Iraq or Afghanistan came from us — vehicles, planes, security forces,” he said.

“We shipped out blood cells for people that were sick or injured every day. We also shipped bombs, bomb-sniffing robots, tires for aircraft, aircraft wings.”

In Qatar, Wyzgowski and other troops lived in a large, long trailer with 30 rooms.

When he arrived, he already had three people in his 10x10-foot room, along with two sets of bunk beds, a mini refrigerator and two wall lockers.

Leisure time consisted of watching movies on his laptop, listening to music on an iPod, watching television and going to the gym after work.

“Qatar is a very rich country,” said Wyzgowski. “We could go downtown, but you had to have at least three people with you with a certain rank. Downtown is very busy.”

Like many other Middle Eastern countries, Qatar was very hot and sandy, with frequent sand storms.

“You can’t really walk outside without your face covered,” he said.

Arriving during the winter, however, Wyzgowski said the weather was not so bad, and it even got cold at night.

Christmas brought large boxes of gifts for Wyzgowski and his unit from Caterpillar Inc. employees. His father works at Building LC downtown Peoria.

“They sent big stockings with food, toothbrushes, batteries, shampoo, pretty much everything,” said Wyzgowski, who distributed the gifts.

The holiday season also brought USO entertainment to Al-Udeid — such as Robin Williams, Kid Rock, Lance Armstrong and Miss USA.

For a morale booster, troops often took a day trip to capital city, Doha. It was also an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the local animals.

“These guys sit on the side of the road with camels, and you can ride one if you pay them,” he said. “The guy has the camel on a lead and you go about 40 yards. They’re very weird and ugly.”

On the base, the food was “decent,” said Wyzgowski. “It was the same stuff every week, similar to the high school cafeteria.”

Then, Wyzgowski and another soldier volunteered — “kind of, kind of not” — to go to Baghdad.

In harm’s way

“They were short of people in that area,” said Wyzgowski. “I lived in a big tent with about 15 other guys in bunk beds.”

He said he found Baghdad very similar to Qatar, except for a few gliches.

“It was windy there a lot,” he said. “The only thing different was the atmosphere, the surroundings, what was going on. In Qatar, you don’t have to wear the body armor and a helmet outside.”

Used to sleeping at night, he found that bunkers often took the place of his bunk bed.

“There was a lot of times we had to get in the bunkers because alarms were going off, because an explosive went off on the base or off the base more than twice a week,” he said.

“We had to take cover till ‘all clear.’ Yes, I was scared. The worst is when you’re sleeping and have to get up and go to the bomb shelter. The alarm pretty much goes off before it hits. If you’re outside, you have to sprint to the bunker and hope you make it.”

The bunkers were similar to a cement-block cylinder, totally dark inside.

“You go in and turn left and turn right and it hollows out,” said Wyzgowski. “There are sandbags around the outside. Maybe 100 people could squeeze into it.”

One trip to deliver packages of classified material took him to The Green Zone, where the United States Embassy is located.

An unexpected “just for fun” trip was an Apache helicopter ride over Baghdad.

Despite a huge gun sticking out the window, he managed to take pictures of the city from the air.

On base, he communicated with family and friends via e-mail. Working from noon to midnight, he relegated phone calls to the weekends, when his family was home and awake.

By the end of February, Wyzgowski was on his way back to Qatar for a week, then wound his way to the states through Italy, Germany, Baltimore, New Mexico and, at last, Chillicothe.

Familiar territory

In New Mexico, Wyzgowski took about a week to in-process, which included going to the family center, talking to the commander, going to finance to do travel vouchers and to the medical clinic.

He returns there April 12, with hopes of completing his four years in the service (he has two years done in June).

“As of now, I’ll probably get out of the Air Force unless something changes,” he said.

With a couple more classes at the Community College of the Air Force, Wyzgowski will have a degree, similar to an associate’s degree, in transportation.

When his mother, who teaches computer and music to kindergarten through eighth grade at St. Edward Catholic School, and his father picked him up at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Peoria, he headed to Nick’s track meet, then went out to eat, still in his uniform.

A man at the restaurant bought them a round of drinks and paid for all their meals.

The family thanked him, and Wyzgowski also shook hands with several other people in the business.

Although Lynn was apprehensive about her son’s new tattoos, she said he chose well.

On his right arm is written “United We Stand,” with the military symbol for the fallen soldier.

On the left is the alpha and  omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.

“Jesus will be there for all things from the beginning to the end,” Wyzgowski said of the significance.

His third tattoo is a cross surrounded by “In God We Trust.”

One day soon, Wyzgowski will visit with a classroom in Oglesby, where one of Lynn’s sisters teaches.

The students wrote to him while he was overseas. Otherwise, he said, he will “just hang out, play my guitar, visit with friends and relax.”

In another two years, Wyzgowski will take his experiences and his training into the public sector. But, he said, his future job is not set in stone.

“I’d love to go to Colorado and work on the slopes,” he said, “or do something practical.”