Robert Zemcik had just been whacked in the head when we sat down under a shade tree so I could hear his story.
Here in north-central Afghanistan, Sgt. Zemcik is a turret gunner on a Caiman armored truck, which puts him some 12 feet off the ground. Coming back from a mission, all of the Caiman and its crew passed under a large, overhanging tree branch except Zemcik's helmet.
His luck runs that way.
Fortunately, Zemcik's sense of humor runs inversely to his luck. The worse his fortune, the broader his smile and the more giddy his laughter.
He is fun to be around -- the kind of guy who naturally attracts people. When I first met him, he was prancing around the motor pool before a mission, demanding in a loud Russian accent that everyone pat the fuzzy head of his troll doll for good luck.
His story starts with a question: Is there anything more the Army can do to this poor guy?
A free spirit from Daytona Beach, Fla., Zemcik enlisted for a four-year term in July 2001 (remember this date), and eventually was deployed to Iraq with the 1st Stryker Brigade.
While he was serving in Iraq on a scout-recon team, his four-year enlistment came to an end. The Army ordered him to stay, anyway, a demand it calls "stop-loss." It's a way for Army clerks to prevent soldiers from up and leaving critical jobs just because of some technicality – you know, like the end of their enlistment term.
"I didn't mind staying," Zemcik said, smiling and rubbing the back of his head where the branch smacked him. "We were a four-man team, we were pretty close, and if I'd left there'd only been three to do the job.
He wasted no time when he got home. He enrolled at Daytona State and earned a degree in communications, then won a job with a direct marketing company with blue-chip clients such as Hallmark and Toyota. "It was a pretty cool job," he recalled. "I'd pretty much figured out what I wanted to do with my life."
In January, however, a certified letter arrived from the Army, a missive that Zemcik left unopened.
"It was the weekend, and I thought it was another Army survey,'' he said. When he got around to reading it, he thought it was a joke. The Army was calling him back to active duty.
"Oh, crap,'' he thought.
The letter reminded Zemcik that even though he had completed his active-duty commitment, the clock was still running on the four years of reserve duty he'd agreed to serve. Once upon a time, that inactive reserve time was a formality for American soldiers. Not anymore. Zemcik still had seven months of that commitment, and the Army wanted it.
Zemcik called his lawyer. "You gotta go,'' the lawyer concluded after reading the letter.
By April, Zemcik had reported for retraining. By July, he was in Afghanistan.
"I am doing the right thing, I think,'' Zemcik said. "A commitment is a commitment.'' He's got no complaints about running missions in Afghanistan for a year.
"I'm not going to lie – it's OK to be back," he says cheerfully, thwacking the dust out of his faded DCUs (desert camouflage uniform). "I wanted to see Afghanistan anyway.''
Between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers like Zemcik are called to active duty each year from the Inactive Ready Reserve. They are people who've served their enlistment yet still owe the government time.
"Most of these guys come from Fort Living Room,'' says Master Sgt. Ray Gooch, Zemcik's boss, who has a bunch of IRR call-ups in his unit. "Some of them been out six months, a year. They pick it up again pretty quick. I can't tell you how pleased I am with them. They've got every right to complain – and they do, occasionally. But they show up, they know what needs to be done and they do it without being told. No whiners. We are fortunate to have them.''
The rumor is that of the thousands of IRR soldiers who are recalled, thousands more fail to show up, hoping the Army won't find them. Not true, says the Army: since Sept. 11, 2001, some 28,000 reservists have been called to active duty, and of those, 433 failed to show up.
Zemcik's story doesn't end there. Remember stop-loss?
Yep. Zemcik's total eight-year commitment came to and end last month, after he was already serving in Afghanistan. That meant he could go home. Until he got a letter from the Army.