Jeff Duncan, a stoneworking professional and U.S. Army veteran, re-enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard in 2005. In January of 2006, he was deployed to Afghanistan, and his tour will be completed sometime in 2008.

In an age where many Americans idolize professional sports figures, who make millions of dollars to play a game, some of the real “heroes” can often be overlooked. This is especially true of some of the men and women in the Armed Forces - both here at home and abroad.

One of these heroes is a close friend of mine, and he comes directly from our own natural stone industry. His name is Jeff Duncan, and I worked with him almost 10 years ago. At the time that I met him, Jeff was going to be a new saw operator at a local tile and stone company where I was working. I would go out to the shop from time to time and notice Jeff watching intently as he trained on how to cut natural stone slabs into countertops. He learned very quickly, and became a master at what he did.

He and I shared a common bond, as we are both veterans of the Regular U.S. Army. He was a soldier in the 1st of the 17th Air Cavalry - part of the famed 82nd Airborne Division.

Over the years, I kept tabs with the owner of the company and a number of my close friends, like Jeff Duncan. Then, almost a decade later, I happened to spend a few days at the same company in June of 2005, when I ran into Jeff again. At the time, he told me that he was their head templater, and that he had also recently re-enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard as an “11-Bravo” (that is the Army’s term for the Military Occupational Specialty of “Combat Infantryman”). This is the job that takes a guy as close to danger as it gets, and he volunteered for it - just like Pat Tillman did along with his brother and my dear friend, Kevin.

In May of this year, I paid another visit to my friends at the same company, and was informed that Jeff was “somewhere in Afghanistan.” They had a large picture of him up on the wall for everyone to see - customers and staff alike. Of course, the photo was not Jeff in his normal templating gear or in a standard company polo shirt. Instead, the picture showed Jeff wearing his ACU’s (Army Combat Uniform), covered in Kevlar body armor and wearing the now-familiar Army Kevlar helmet, holding his M-4 rifle - with his usual smile that I remember him always having. I found out that SP4 Jeff Duncan was awarded “Soldier of the Year” for the State of Arizona representing Bravo Company - 1st of the 158th Infantry Battalion’s “Bushmasters.” Knowing Jeff, I am not surprised in the least bit that he won such an honor. Moreover, it’s something that I would expect from him to achieve.

Jeff was deployed to Afghanistan in January of 2006, and as of this writing, he is still over there with his unit. Although he will be coming home soon on leave, he will have to return and finish out his deployment - coming home for good sometime in 2008.

I recently had a chance to ask Jeff about his experiences:

What does a normal day consist of for you?

Jeff Duncan: There really isn’t any day that is considered normal here for us. We have a schedule that changes weekly within our unit. We can be running missions of different types, both daily and nightly outside the wire - manning over watch positions and lookout towers, working the entry control points, etc. And as usual, we are always maintaining our personal gear, equipment and weapons, getting ready for the next day’s missions and keeping up our physical fitness. You just need to be very flexible and open-minded here.

What inspired you to rejoin the military so many years after your break from active duty service as a younger man?

Jeff Duncan: There are a couple of things that I can say inspired me to re-up. First of all, 9/11 was a huge eye opener for me as it was for the thousands of other Americans concerning the vulnerability of the U.S. Even at the age of 46 at the time (now 49), I knew that I needed to do something more to contribute to the cause. The Arizona National Guard gave me the opportunity to do just that. Second of all, I have three family members who had served in combat defending our freedom as Americans. My older brother, Craig, was a Navy fighter pilot during the Vietnam War era. My Uncle Norm served as a Marine in World War II in the Pacific, and my dad, 1st Lieutenant Charles L. Duncan, whom I hold close to my heart, as “my hero” was a B17 bomber pilot flying missions over Europe. The concept of inspiration differs among each individual person here that I serve with today, but patriotism is certainly a common factor among us.

What makes you happy there?

Jeff Duncan: Going outside the wire, accomplishing a night mission and getting back inside unscathed would certainly have to be numero uno on my list. I can also appreciate the smiling faces and thumbs up from the kids as we roll through areas. Some of us have been able to make friends with some of the locals that work with us also. That’s what it’s all about, winning hearts and minds. I also am serving with a lot of really talented and dedicated people over here. I don’t know if that makes me feel happy, but it is a confidence builder.

I’ve talked mostly about us, the soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines. But there is a special group of people that I would like to comment on. Those are the wives, husbands, families and friends of all of us over here. These are the people that carry the brunt of the weight for us being overseas. They are the ones that continue to keep our households and lives together. They continue to drive our economy in the right direction. We might get the homecoming, but they are the ones we come home for.