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thedrifter
04-17-06, 08:23 AM
Alaska on his mind
By MARGARET FRIEDENAUER
Staff Writer

Monday, April 17, 2006 - Joshua Kumher wanted to be a Marine since he was 9 years old growing up off the grid near Tok. Really, he only knew he wanted to join the Armed Services, but it was his grandfather Albert, a veteran of the Korean War, that convinced him the Marines were the way to go.

"They always seemed like the best," Kumher said recently by phone from California. "I'd say, 'Hey grandpa, what about the Army?' He'd say, 'Don't join the Army. Why would you join the Army?'"

But Kumher has a new appreciation for Army soldiers. He just returned, Purple Heart in hand, from his third tour in Iraq with a Marine unit that served alongside an Army brigade in Ramadi.

Kumher, 22, is at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., awaiting the birth of his second child, contemplating re-enlisting and looking forward to visiting his home in Tok again.

Kumher grew up on a homestead between Tok and Northway. The family moved from Ohio in 1992 and settled into the remote lifestyle. His dad Greg works at the post office in Tok and his mom Carol is a homemaker. She home-schooled Joshua and his younger sister Rose. Carol said Joshua was always interested in the history. He study various wars and told his parents he wanted to be a Marine. Carol said she and her husband nurtured his goal because it kept him focused.

"We just let him have his dream," she said. "It gave him a goal to work toward."

When he was 17, Kumher remembers, a Marine recruiter from Fairbanks drove out to the Kumher home. The recruiter was impressed that the family lived without running water or electricity and told Kumher he would do just fine in the Marines.

"He said, 'Going out into the field definitely won't be much of hardship for you,'" Kumher said.

Being from Alaska, Kumher said he became somewhat of a novelty in his unit. He said the big-city recruits would complain about the cold or rain when the unit was out in the field. And he said he was always correcting misconceptions about the Last Frontier, telling people that igloos aren't as prevalent as many of them thought.

"You'd be surprised about how many of them are actually serious about that," he said.

He was assigned the call sign "Snowflake."

During his three tours to Iraq, each between six to eight months long, Kumher was deployed as a guard in Kuwait for 3 months before being sent to join the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. He traveled with the unit to Karbala, in the al-Anbar province near the Syrian border and in the city of Ramadi.

His mom Carol says each deployment is nerve-wracking.

"It's very scary," she said. "And he's had a number of close calls."

Kumher agrees with his mom, although he speaks more breezily about it.

"I've definitely had enough close calls to supply me for a lifetime, that's for sure," he said with a laugh.

Including the close call that earned him the Purple Heart.

As a section leader for a combat anti-armor team, Kumher usually leads ground patrols, raids and cordon searches. But one day in Ramadi, Kumher said, his driver asked if he could join in a raid to stretch his legs and get out of the vehicle. Kumher agreed to switch positions with him for the day.

Kumher waited in the armored Humvee with a fellow Marine manning the gunner position. Kumher decided to back the Humvee up so as not to remain in one position too long. He backed up five feet and an improvised explosive device detonated in the spot the vehicle had been seconds before.

"It was pretty interesting," Kumher said rather nonchalantly. "It was like slow movement; the ground comes up, the front of the Humvee goes up and I don't remember anything else except for flash and then a big dust cloud a little while later."

The gunner injured his back and Kumher was knocked unconscious for awhile, but he fully recovered.

The hardest part about deployment, Kumher said, is fending off the stresses and yearnings for home. But he said most U.S. forces are able to maintain good communication with home through e-mail and letters.

"That's really what keeps you going over there," he said. "Sometimes the day to day thing gets you down because there's never a rest. You're always stressed out, you're always weary or bored or whatever. But you come back (to base) and you get mail ... it really makes you feel like you're actually doing something. It makes you fell like they haven't forgotten about you."

But he said there are plenty of good moments too. He liked playing hide and seek with Iraq children and admits the sweet tea called chai, an Iraqi custom, got addicting. He also liked the camaraderie of unit and the cohesiveness they formed to work together well.

Joshua's time with the Marines is up on Oct. 6. He and his wife, Ashley, also from Tok, are contemplating whether Joshua will re-enlist. The couple has a 2-year-old son and another child due any day. When Joshua's time in the Marines is up, whether this fall or several years from now, he said the family wants to return to Alaska.

"I can't wait to come back. I miss the snow, I miss everything about it," he said. "I miss the people. People are so much more friendly up there."

Staff writer Margaret Friedenauer can be reached at 459-7545 or mfriedenauer@newsminer.com .

Ellie