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Attacks drive Hernando grad's choice to enlist

Steven Wilkins' interest in the military was evident from an early age. At 6, he liked the Boy Scout uniform his older brother wore. Later, he played with G.I. Joe action figures and spoke with his parents about wanting to enter the service.

But nothing cemented the former Hernando wrestler's decision to enlist in the Army more than what he saw on the television news during science class on Sept. 11, 2001.

Wilkins had considered studying business and running track or cross country at Flagler or Florida Southern before he saw the World Trade Center towers collapse.

"I was mad that someone tried to attack us and hurt our people," said Wilkins, now 19. "I just wanted to go there and do something about it."

He has, as a U.S. Army Ranger.

Wilkins has served separate 30-day tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. His decision has been difficult for his family, which supports him but worries.

"I'm not pleased he's in the military in times like this, but that was his decision," said Steven's father, Ron. "He always wanted to be in the military ever since he was a little bitty boy. He wanted to go help other people out."

Though he is prohibited from talking about his work, Steven said his experiences overseas made him appreciate the comforts he once took for granted _ a roof over his head, a bed to lay in, showers and grocery stores to buy food.

"The first deployment was pretty tough," Steven said. "It was my first time outside the country seeing how other people lived. People are real poor. It seems like they have no future over there."

Steven was a high school junior when he decided to put off college to enlist. At a wrestling tournament, he said he tried to recruit Central's Bucky Solomon, whom he had known since sixth grade at Powell Middle School and who shared his interest in the military.

"I was trying to recruit him," Steven said, "and he was trying to recruit me."

Steven enlisted right after high school, a week after Solomon. After three months of basic training, one month of Airborne School and another month in the Ranger Indoctrination Program at Fort Benning, Ga., the two were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., where they live 100 feet from one another.

Though they are in different companies, Steven said the two friends and former wrestlers bumped into each other a couple of times in Afghanistan.

"It was nice knowing somebody," Steven said. "Seeing their face alone was nice."

Steven was home for 18 days around Thanksgiving but had to work on Christmas, which he celebrated at a friend's home on the Army base.

His parents pray constantly and monitor television broadcasts for news of casualties.

"Any time anybody drives up in the driveway, you're expecting to hear something," Ron said. "He told us in letters, "I'm fine, I'm doing great,' and we have to trust that that's the way he is."

Steven has about 1{ years remaining on his three-year commitment, then five months of Reserves. He said he is likely to pursue a career as a firefighter.

"Steven's always been one of these type of kids who always dreamed of shooting the moon and then going and trying to do it," Ron said. "He's the type of kid who won't give up. When he goes after something, he'll chase it until he catches it, just like the military."