“Is this real?”
That was the question that popped into Steven Goris’ mind when he woke up July 9. He was, after all, back in his own bed in Amsterdam. Which was obviously different from waking up at his Army base in Afghanistan. But then, after he saw his girlfriend, Victoria Gonzales, a smile crept over his face.
He was home.
The U.S. Army sergeant had just completed his second tour in Afghanistan, an eight-month deployment. He returned to Amsterdam on the morning of July 8.
Victoria said, “264 days,” as they sat on the couch in their apartment on the city’s South Side.
“It was 246 days,” Steven corrected her with a smile.
“What did I say?” she said.
“264,” he said.
She smiled. “Well, it seemed like it,” she said.
Their exchange, or one like it, has been repeated many thousands of times in recent years as soldiers return from combat zones halfway around the world. U.S. troops have been in harm’s way in Afghanistan for nearly half as long as Goris has been alive, but that era may finally be coming to a close, with the planned withdrawal of most American troops this year and the rest by 2016.
Goris said he can’t wait to see the rest of the troops come home safely from what has become the United States’ longest war.
Goris and Gonzales have known each other since kindergarten. They had the same circle of friends, and both were raised in Amsterdam. They didn’t become a couple until 2-1/2 years ago, after he came home from Afghanistan the first time.
When he left for his second tour in Afghanistan last year, she was distraught.
“I cried non-stop,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to expect.”
After Goris was deployed, Gonzales canceled her cable television service so she wouldn’t have to know all of the upsetting details of what might be happening overseas. She would still get the paper but she would do her best to avoid the sort of news that could upset her or cause her to worry.
“I just basically kept busy with keeping him a part of my daily routine,” she said.
She would try to send him care packages every two weeks that included pictures and even cards from friends and family members. It was a way for her to also let him know that he wasn’t forgotten.
For Goris, every time he got mail or care packages was like Christmas.
“The hardest thing about the military is being away from your family,” he said.
Gonzales and Goris would Skype every day, after Gonzales would come home from work at Fidelis Care, and before Goris reported for duty. He would wake up an hour early so they could talk.
It was yet another way to keep themselves a part of each other’s lives, even though they were thousands of miles apart.
Once a storm caused Goris’ base to lose Internet service for 24 hours. By then, though, Goris and Gonzales had downloaded an app that would help them send texts to each other. But Gonzales noticed that the texts weren’t being delivered. She grew anxious with all those emotions she wanted to avoid, but they passed when Goris eventually was able to text her back.
Goris joined the military in April 2010 because he wanted to serve his country. It was something he’d always wanted to do, but was a bit nervous about actually doing. There was never one moment when the situation crystallized before him and he knew it was the right thing to do, but ever since joining, he knew he’d made the right decision. His current enlistment is up in December 2016 and he plans to stay in the Army.
In his second tour in Afghanistan, Goris’ main task was to provide security for the colonel and sergeant major in his battalion as they would meet with their counterparts in the Afghan army. It’s never easy being deployed, Goris explained. But his second tour was easier to deal with since he sort of knew what to expect after his first tour. There was a routine he had gotten used to. He knew what he was going to wear each day, where he would go to eat, what he would have to do to a certain point. But as always, he had to be on alert for anything. It was a balance he had to find.
Since arriving home, Goris has been catching up with family and friends. He and Gonzales, with their kids, Julian Goris and Julianna Valentin, both 7 years old, have also done the simple things in life, like go out and get some ice cream together.
Goris is 28, so he’s a little more laid back in terms of how he wants to celebrate being home. To him, spending time with the family, with his mom and friends, is enough for him.
For Gonzales’ part, she wants Goris to know that he’s a hero.
“I’m so proud,” she said, as she held his arm.
Goris tried to explain why he doesn’t think so.
“He hates it,” Gonzales said.
“I don’t hate it,” he explained. “I just like to be...”
“Off the radar,” she said.
“Yeah,” he smiled.
Goris, for now, will be taking reintegration classes at Fort Drum. That means he will be leaving usually on Sunday nights to spend the entire week at the base and an apartment in nearby Watertown, coming home to Amsterdam on weekends. Starting Aug. 15, however, he will get 30 straight days off.
He’s ready for it.