American Forces Press Service
April 7, 2009 - Bathed in the light of a bright, winter moon, just outside of a small village in Afghanistan's Wardak province, Army Spc. David Helton sits on the edge of a black metal bench. It is spattered with red mud, and duct tape holds most of the padded seat in place. The display on his iPod glows and rock music blares through the ear buds.
The squat, 200-pound infantry soldier reaches to the dirt at his feet and picks up a dusty, heavy metal plate and slides it onto the end of the barbell balanced on the bench. The temperature is near freezing, but Helton sports only a tight-fitting Army issued T-shirt, his chest and arms bulging as he works through his nightly weightlifting routine.
In stark contrast to the large, well-equipped gyms that have sprung up in tents and temporary buildings at the more developed forward operating bases in Afghanistan, Helton's muddy, patched-up bench serves as the sole gym equipment at Combat Outpost Apache, occupied by a platoon of soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment.
The bench is flanked by a high mud wall topped with concertina wire, and a freshly built ammunition bunker. A handful of barbell weights and dumbbells are scattered about. It is a no-frills workout, and nearly every day, despite the long missions, Helton keeps his appointment with the bench.
"The impact of our work on a day-to-day basis is pretty big, but I workout because I'm an infantryman. You've got to be strong," Helton said. "You've got to be able to carry out the mission. You've got to be able to pick up a guy and throw him over your shoulder and carry him out of the fight."
COP Apache is housed in an abandoned former district agricultural building. The troops landed, literally, in the valley about a month ago. In the bitter-cold, early morning hours, the infantry soldiers launched with full combat packs from hovering helicopters into waist-deep snow and trudged through a five-mile trek to what is now their outpost.
It was a mission that put his personal fitness to the test, Helton said.
"It put a hurtin' on me," the Ohio-born farm boy said. "But I just kept trucking."
It was tough farm work that made him strong at a young age, Helton said. But he started lifting weights when he was 13 to get stronger for sports. He liked football, wrestling and baseball.
In high school, Helton dropped all other sports to focus on football. Like most young players, there were dreams of moving on to play for college and beyond, but Helton played for a big school, and there was even bigger competition.
So, after high school his focus shifted to marrying his high school sweetheart.
To start a family, Helton figured needed a good-paying job. The big bonuses and benefits of the military lured him and Helton did something he said he had never intended, and signed up for the Army.
Initially, Helton signed on for aviation support, but later reconsidered. His grandfather had served in World War II as a cavalry scout, and somehow, Helton said, his choice in a support role seemed less than "hooah."
Now, with less than four years in, Helton is on his second deployment to Afghanistan as an infantryman.
"I love it. I wouldn't change it. There's only one job in the Army," Helton boasts. "There are different ways to be a soldier, but really only one true way, and I'm doing it."
Helton's first deployment to Afghanistan almost ended his life, or at least his Army career. In June 2006, after a late-night patrol, Helton returned to Forward Operating Base Tillman, in the eastern Paktia province. Beat after the long patrol, Helton hit the bed for a good night's sleep.
He woke up in a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
During the night, the building in which his platoon was sleeping collapsed on them. Too many sandbags were placed on the roof for protection from mortars causing it to cave in. Several were injured. Metal beams crushed Helton's leg and chest. He suffered a collapsed lung and a brain injury. His heart stopped twice, Helton said.
"I thank God I'm still here. I feel really good now," Helton said.
For several months, back in the United States, Helton was forced to lay off his workout and let his body recover. Now, he is back to working out, and back in Afghanistan. He is still working toward his one-time bench-press best of 385 pounds. He is at about 315 pounds now, but to Helton that is disappointing.
"I barely got 300 pounds up," he said of a recent workout.
Helton has big lifting plans. Eventually he would like to be the size of professional body builders, he said.
But for now, it is a struggle to fit a workout into his infantry schedule. Sleep is at a premium here, and it is typically intermittent. A pro-lifting diet is also hard to maintain here, although he stocked up on supplements before the deployment.
"We're always so busy," he said. "It's really easy to get back over here and get out of shape, because you get beat down quite a bit working all the time. You've just got to keep it up."
Helton said his daily workouts help manage his stress level. Lifting helps him relax.
"It seems like it just puts me in a different place," Helton said.
But, despite is eventual goals, Helton said his main purpose now is to get stronger for his infantry mission. While his extra bulk has admittedly slowed his physical fitness test two-mile run-time, the extra muscle allows him to better shoulder the hundreds of rounds of ammunition and weapons and gear he carries daily.
"For this type of mission ... it's really good to be strong," Helton said. "It's good being a pack mule over here. You can hump more weight. You can keep going."
And when he thinks about skipping a workout, it is Helton's dedication to his mission that sends him back to the worn bench sitting in the dirt under the stars.
"If you don't keep it up, what are you going to do when you really need that extra strength?" Helton said.