It's something Adam Graetz always wanted to do.
For as long as his dad can remember, the Largo native talked about joining the Army. Graetz's wife of three years knew of his desire as well. She supported his dream.
But Graetz, a former medic at the Dunedin and Largo fire departments, has been away from his family for 22 of the last 24 months. He has missed Thanksgiving and both of his 2-year-old son Jackson's Dec. 7 birthdays.
Fulfilling his dream and serving as an Army medic stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, Spc. Graetz will miss Christmas.
It's a sacrifice he and his family have shouldered in anticipation of a brighter future for themselves and for the nation the United States has vowed to restore.
"The separation is hard," Graetz, 35, said last week during a phone interview from Ramadi. "But I feel I'm helping a lot more people. I defend the greatest nation in the world and can also help embattled nations around the world. It is very hard to look at it that way right now. This is tough."
It's just as tough for his wife, Abigail, who is due to give birth to the couple's second son in six weeks.
The two met during an orientation for Sunstar Ambulance, where she was a emergency medical technician. They married in 2006. She now lives in Fort Bragg, N.C., with their son.
"It is hard being the one left behind," Abigail Graetz, 33, said. "But it's also hard to know fully all the day-to-day emotions you sign up for till you are there. Like spending birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and possibly even the births of our children without our loved ones by our sides.
"On some days, just the sight of a dad with his small child can be the thing that brings tears to my eyes."
Adam Graetz graduated from Largo High School. He became a medic and worked at Dunedin's Fire Department for five years before heading to Largo's Fire Department, where he worked for about 21/2 years. He is a triathlete who has competed internationally for the United States several times.
Graetz graduated from Barry University in August 2008 with a bachelor's of science in exercise science. The next month, he left the Fire Department and went to boot camp. He was 34 years old.
"He was old enough to know what he was getting into," said his father, Ernie Graetz, 68, of Largo. "But as a parent, I am not gung ho with him being there because I worry about him. As a parent, you worry about your child being in a place of danger, but you are sill proud of him."
Graetz is with the 82nd Airborne 2-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment at the Blue Diamond Forward Operating Base. He is expected to be in Iraq until August. As a combat medic, he helps take care of the medical needs of an infantry platoon.
In addition, Graetz said he works with an Iraqi one-star general and helps train Iraqi medics and doctors.
In February, Graetz will have his final interview for the Army's Officers Candidates School.
With elections approaching in Iraq, things are expected to get testy over the next few months.
"We have had rocket attacks against our FOB, a large vehicle-borne explosive device destroy a bridge right outside our compound and sniper attacks against other trucks in our unit," Graetz said. "They expect it to be a little crazy until after the elections in March."
Graetz is hoping to come home at the end of January for the birth of his second son, Noah.
Abigail is hopeful but realistic.
"As an Army wife, one of the things I've had to learned to do is make plan A, B, and C," she said. "I'm praying and hoping that he will be here."
Graetz is aware of his sacrifice.
Son Jackson was 10 months old when he left for training. Not only has he missed his son's birthdays, he also missed his son's first steps, and some of his son's first words were babbled over a telephone.
But Graetz said that's nothing compared with the sacrifice his family is making.
"Everyone talks about the soldiers, but our wives, husbands, kids, they are just as deployed as we are," Graetz said. "That gets forgotten sometimes."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-445-4174.