August 21, 2009
Homer soldier honored for actions in Afghanistan
HOMER — Cpl. Mark Coon does not think he ever would have joined the military during peacetime. He joined the U.S. Army three years ago, because he felt he was more ready to go to war than many others were.
“A lot of the people that are in the military now didn’t join with the idea of going to war,” Coon said Wednesday. “When you’re in situations like that, if your head isn’t totally in it, you can get yourself or other people around you killed. I figured I would rather be in a position where, I would rather take the place of someone who isn’t 100 percent ready to be there, because I’m good at it.”
Coon, 34, a Homer native, returned home from Afghanistan on Sunday. He spent the past year as a company mentor and weapons instructor for the Combat Infantry Kandak, a unit of more than 600 Afghan soldiers. Along with a team of 11 other American soldiers and military officials from other countries, he trained the Afghan soldiers and fought alongside them against the Taliban and other enemy groups.
In honor of his service, he was given a Bronze Star medal on Aug. 1 and received the Soldier of the Year award for his unit in Afghanistan.
He has also earned his Combat Action Badge during his service for playing an important role in a major operation in the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
Coon stood on the top of a Humvee firing a machine gun at Taliban soldiers during the operation. During this type of combat situation, Coon was always the gunner, or the person on top of the Humvee, because he was one of the top three shooters on his team, he said.
His actions provided a secure perimeter and denied access to his unit’s commander and the Afghan National Army’s commander. The operation also established the free flow of supplies to residents in two districts of the province and the Afghan National Security Forces assigned to the area, according to a narrative of Coon’s accomplishments written by leaders of his team in nominating him for the Bronze Star Medal.
Coon was given the Bronze Star Medal largely because of his role in the operation, he said.
Coon also played a vital role during an operation in the Logar Province that led to the capture of 26 Taliban soldiers, three of whom were identified as Taliban commanders, according to the narrative.
Coon said he was the gunner during this operation and also helped to set up roadblocks that allowed his team to capture of the three Taliban commanders.
He received the Soldier of the Year award based on his performance on a test, performance in action, and other factors, such as appearance and personality.
Coon is now staying at his lifelong friend Kevin Cappy’s house on South Main Street in the village.
“It’s a different world out there. It’s good to be back and be able to smell grass,” Coon said.
Coon said he will probably report to Fort Drum this weekend to begin a two-month processing period as he finishes his Army service.
But he plans to return to Afghanistan next summer as a civilian to work as a small arms instructor. If he gets that job, he will do almost exactly the same work he did for the Army, but instead of making $40,000 per year, he will make $200,000 to $300,000 a year, he said.
He said he hopes to stay there for about six years.
Coon said he feels he was able to put the 600 Afghan soldiers he worked with in a better position to fight the Taliban and other enemy groups by training them to use advanced NATO weapons and Humvees.
Before his team trained them, the Afghan soldiers in the Combat Infantry Kandak used old Warsaw weapons that they used to fight the Soviets decades earlier, he said.
Coon’s dedication led the Kandak to be the first in the brigade to implement the new weapons and vehicles, according to the narrative.
Coon said the U.S. military’s main goal in Afghanistan is “to give them a functional, strong central government and keep the government from falling back into the hands of terrorists who can set up training areas.”
“Unless we give them jobs, roads, schools and hospitals, we’re never going to win,” he said.
Coon recognizes that the war in Afghanistan has often received less attention from the American public and government than the war in Iraq.
“Personally I don’t like it, because I think we have more of a vested interest in Afghanistan than we do in Iraq anyway,” Coon said. “There weren’t terrorists coming from Iraq. Iraq never came to the United States and blew things up.”
But he said he thinks the situation in Afghanistan will improve now that the U.S. military has been shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan since April.
Coon said he plans to spend the winter snowboarding in the southwest region of the United States. He first began snowboarding on local ski resorts as a teenager. Last winter was the first one in 15 years when he was not able to snowboard, he said.
Northern Afghanistan’s landscape features many snow-covered mountains, but most of them are covered with landmines, Coon said, adding, “I like extreme snowboarding, but that’s pushing it just a little bit.”
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe