‘This One’s For You,’ Sgt. Callahan and the rest of the 220th

Members of the 220th Engineer Company of the Missouri National Guard gathered for a group photo at their April 25 deployment ceremony in Festus, Mo.

At the Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, Sgt. James Callahan can check out the Cardinals on major-league baseball’s At Bat app as if he were using his laptop at home in St. Peters.

He can text, Facebook, Skype and communicate with family and friends like he were in the United States, too, though the 9 1/2-hour time difference offers a challenge.

The Callahan family before his deployment to Afghanistan: sons Damian and Jimmy, daughter Cally, wife Kelly and Sgt. James Callahan.

Callahan spends his workdays much like he does at home, except he’s operating heavy equipment for the Missouri National Guard instead of AT&T, and the hours aren’t as regular. 

In fact, in the two-plus months since he landed with the 220th Engineer Company, Callahan says not much has surprised him about life on an airbase of 20,000 located on the other side of the world.

"The food has been fantastic. I’m surprised about it," Callahan said the other morning via telephone. "I can’t complain, really. The conditions are way above board, better than I expected. Food, housing, everything has been really good."

But no matter how well the Guard takes care of its troops and regardless of how small the world feels because of technology, being stationed in the middle of a war-torn region isn’t that much different than it ever has been. You’re still a long, long way from home, danger is always lurking, and everyone is thinking all the time about a safe return home. So, no, it’s not an opportunity many would pursue.

Members of the 220th at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

"Nobody wants him to be over there and in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary," said Kerry Russell, Callahan’s wife. "His mom is probably dealing with it the hardest; that’s her only baby boy. It’s been rough."

Said his mom, Carol Miller, "If I had my druthers, no mother’s son would ever have to do this."

Yet given the family history, no one is at all surprised that Callahan has found his way to Afghanistan. Miller said her family has been going to battle for the country since the Civil War, and her husband, John, lost an eye and carries "three feet of scars" from fighting in Vietnam. Still, he remains a proud veteran who supported Callahan’s decision to deploy.

"My son is no different than any other son. He felt called to go," Miller said. "I’m sure that hearing his grandfather and his father’s war stories made an impact on him. He felt the need to go, and I feel the need to support him and his choice."

Callahan, 44, had been talking about being deployed pretty much since he went into the National Guard six years ago. He came close to getting the call so often that late last year, when he found out indeed he would be going to Afghanistan, his wife’s reaction was "shock."  

"Like, ‘Wow, it’s finally going to happen,’" she said.

Callahan got his chance when the captain of the 220th, Michael Paluczak, requested him specifically because of his 20 years’ experience repairing and operating cranes. The 220th is helping prepare the airfield to turn over to the Afghan National Army sometime later this year or early in 2015.

"We need to pull back and downsize some of the facilities and then bring them up to date," Callahan said. "Making sure everything is working properly before we hand everything over."

Just last week, the 150-member 220th finished its work on a water treatment plant on an airfield lagoon.

"We doubled the capacity of what they have and we completed the work about two weeks ahead of schedule," Callahan said.

Sgt. James Callahan at the Festus, Mo., armory before his departure for Fort Bliss, Texas. The 220th then went from Fort Bliss to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

Callahan barely is two-plus months into a stay that could last up to a year and his wife admits she’s still "extremely nervous." But she adds, having the support of family as well as the families of fellow service men and women helps pass the days.

One day she and hundreds of others with loved ones at Kandahar circled on their calendars long ago is Tuesday night, when FOX Sports Midwest stages its annual "This One’s For You" Cardinals telecast. The game will be televised by the American Forces Network with FOX Sports Midwest providing a way via satellite for military personnel at the airfield to connect with their families at Busch Stadium.

More than 1,000 family members and friends of the 220th are expected to attend the 7:15 p.m. game against the Reds, including 14 from Callahan’s family. In Kandahar, troops from Festus-based 220th Engineer Company will gather to watch and, for some, be seen by familiar faces in St. Louis. For those at home and in Afghanistan, this is way more than just another game out of 162.

"This game is something that we all rally around," said Callahan, who played baseball at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School. "We can share that experience of camaraderie we have as a group with our families back home so they know we’re not here by ourselves."

"People in the military stick together and support each other," Carol Miller said. "It’s an incredible experience. You feel like you have this huge extended family. We’re all there to support our young men and women who are over there. You know these people understand you. We all have a common goal, which is to bring them all home safely."

Like the Cardinals do for water-cooler talk around the Midwest, they give the troops from the 220th and the 276th something to debate and discuss.

"Almost everyone is a Cardinals fan," Callahan said. "We have some diehard fans here, that’s for sure."

When they talk Cardinals these days, the topic often is about the lack of offense.

"Everyone’s got their theories," Callahan said. "I don’t know if there are any that are correct."

Hmm. That sounds a lot like the talk back home, too.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.