For Christmas, Marine trades Afghanistan for Conn.
BROOKFIELD, Conn.—Hunter McGuinness spent last Christmas in Afghanistan, in the southwest city of Sangin, which is reported to have seen more combat fatalities than any other part the country.
His job was to walk ahead of his peers and look for roadside bombs, the devices that have caused more than 66 percent of coalition casualties in that country.
This year, the 22-year-old Brookfield High School graduate was to celebrate at his parents' Brookfield home with two siblings and 20 relatives.
The stark contrast is not lost on McGuinness, though Christmas is not a big deal to him. Being with family is what matters, not the presents or decorations, he said.
In Afghanistan at Christmas, he and his comrades opened presents in the tents they shared.
"They are your family there," he said. "Of course, you'd rather be home for the holidays, but we all signed up for a reason, and you have to do what you have to do."
McGuinness is on a two-week leave from Camp Pendleton in California, where he's been stationed since his return from Afghanistan in April. He'll leave the Marines in the spring.
McGuinness said he volunteered to be the point man -- the soldier out in front, looking for the improvised explosive devices.
Why did he volunteer?
"So no one else had to," he said. "It's definitely the most dangerous job. It was scary and exciting at the same time."
On Thanksgiving Day 2010, McGuinness was hit with shrapnel in his neck and lower back from a detonated bomb, but he was able to run away. He was treated for his injures and insisted on working the next day.
By the time he left the country, he had identified 20 bombs, and he and engineers had more than 70 bombs confirmed.
"There were a lot of limbs and a lot of lives saved," he said.
McGuinness joined the Marines right out of high school in 2007, following his grandfather and his father into that service.
He was deployed first to Europe, then Cuba, before being sent to Sangin in October 2010.
Having McGuinness home for Christmas is huge for his parents, John and Nancy.
"Just talking about it can make me cry," John McGuinness said in a phone interview Friday. "He's having a memorial bracelet tattooed on his wrist for a friend he lost in the war on Christmas Day last year.
"To have him home after what he went through means the world to us."
The younger McGuinness said his time in the Marines has made him more mature and responsible, and more appreciative of little things, like taking a shower and sleeping in a bed at night.
"I'm absolutely a better person," he said. "I think ... what (soldiers) have to do in order for people here to go about their daily life makes them better people."
His father flew to California to greet him when he returned from Afghanistan, and met his superior officers.
"They expressed that he was a hero," John McGuinness said. "He risked his life to save a lot of other Marines' lives."
Hunter McGuinness liked danger growing up, but he knew his service was more than that.
"I don't think anyone is brave consciously," his father said. "It's just something you do."