Kevyn Mack stops to take a heavy breath while recounting the nightmares of his time in Afghanistan. He looks to his aunt.
"I knew I would get emotional," he said.
The Army specialist recently returned home to Meeker after an overseas stay three days shy of a year -- he kept count -- and visited his aunt and uncle, Paula and Ty Reed, in Craig on Monday. He said machine gunners are not as tough as they seem.
"Being grunts, you're cocky about your job," he said. "But we were all scared to death, every one of us."
Mack kept looking over his shoulder while operating a .50-caliber machine gun on top of a Humvee.
"All my friends that got killed were machine gunners, so it was nerve wracking," he said.
He was stationed in Paktika Province in southeastern Afghanistan after volunteering to go overseas and extending his time in the Army.
"Why practice for a game if you're not going to play it?" he said.
When he arrived, he found nothing more than a flat spot on the ground for the soldiers to set their tents. They eventually moved from cots to bunk beds and set up generators for electricity. They also hired Afghanis to build concrete buildings for shelter.
"They're the hardest working people I've ever met," Mack said.
The soldiers had no shower, no toilet and no running water for eight months.
"When you don't shower for 60 days, it just makes it that much better when you do," he said.
Mack said this didn't seem fair considering other bases had Burger King stands and Postal Exchange stores, or a "military Kmart," as Ty explained.
But the solitude gave Mack time to think.
"I relived every high school memory I ever had," he said. "It's amazing how much gets done when you're doing nothing, how much is in your mind."
He thought about his daughters, Eliana, 3, and Jayden, 22 months, and he made plans for the future.
While in Afghanistan, he opened a magazine and saw an ad for Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, and he decided to enter the 111-week program when he finishes his enlistment.
After his 30 days of leave in Colorado, he has 90 days left at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Then he's completed his commitment and will "live the freedom that I fought for, that we fought for."
But he will miss the soldiers he spent nearly every moment of the day and night with.
"I trained so long with the same people," he said. "I can't even say we're like brothers because we are brothers. I don't think you'll ever be closer to anyone than if you're in combat with them."
His fondest memories surround nights when interpreters would buy fresh ingredients, including live chickens, and cook for the soldiers.
"These were the best times because it was just like having a barbecue with your buddies," he said.
Together, they visited 13 countries in Mack's three years in the Army. He liked Australia the best but came back with a souvenir from Afghanistan -- a scar on his right arm.
"I just remember white," he said. "It happened so fast, it was in slow motion."
He was in the back of a truck when it was hit by a command-detonated improvised explosive device. The soldiers piled out of the vehicle, and Mack didn't realize he'd been hit with shrapnel until he looked over and saw his shirt blown out.
He had the option to be flown to a hospital, but he refused.
"I guess I was just too stubborn or too proud," he said. "I was just angry someone would try to hurt us like that."
And it's something he'd like to forget.
"I don't watch the news anymore. It makes me cringe," he said.
There's more going on in Afghanistan than Mack thinks the American people know. He had a hand in starting numerous schools and police forces. He liked to spend time with the children, but he couldn't do that as often as he would have liked.
"We weren't there to trust the people," he said. "We were there to start a government and get them on their feet and then slowly fade away."
And no matter how many times the Afghani militias would fire at the Americans, Mack said they kept their cool.
"We'd let them slap us in the face, then give them tractors," he said. "I honestly feel that our presence made a huge impact on that country."
But Mack cannot even imagine volunteering to go back to a place where he was continually sweating or freezing, he was afraid to close his eyes at night and letters from home were the only thing to look forward to.
"I've spent too much time over there," he said. "I hate the feeling of being away from my family and not knowing if you're going to live till sunset.
"Living in fear is no way to live."
Letters to Mack may be sent to the home of his parents, Tracy and Teresa Mack, 357 Garfield St., Meeker, CO 81641. They will forward mail to him.