Staff Sgt. Chris Somera has cleared mine fields in Bosnia. He has guarded terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and protected refugees in Albania.
He has helped rebuild New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and he has helped seize 1,000 pounds of smuggled drugs on the Mexican border.
But the Lodi resident's next mission may be his most dangerous.
Somera, 28, is one of the more than 20,000 soldiers being deployed to Iraq as part of President Bush's so-called troop surge. Democrats in Washington have balked at Bush's Iraq war strategy and have called for the troops to come home within 18 months.
While the story of the war unfolds on remote battle fields and in the halls of Congress, preparations for an imminent deployment are being made just blocks from downtown Lodi. At the Lodi National Guard Armory, a normally dormant building on North Washington Street, soldiers like Somera are getting ready for war.
"It's all set in stone. We're going," said Somera, a life-long Lodi resident and son of a Lodi police officer. "This is the largest deployment the California Guard has done since Korea. We have soldiers from all over the state being pieced together."
Somera's unit - Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 1st of the 143rd field artillery - is mostly comprised of soldiers who live within 50 miles of Lodi. Normally, they meet one weekend a month for routine training and exercise. However, when the deployment orders came down last month, Somera took a leave from his construction job to work full-time at the armory.
• Age: 28.
• School: Lodi High School and Liberty High School home school program.
• Career: 7 1/2 years Army active duty, 3 1/2 years Army National Guard.
• Deployments: Bosnia, Albania, New Orleans, Mexican border and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
• Upcoming deployment: Iraq.
- News-Sentinel staff.
Somera and six other soldiers stationed at the armory wear camouflage uniforms to work and busy themselves with administrative tasks. They do physical training on most mornings. Last week, Somera, who shaves his head bald, and three other soldiers were seen marching down Turner Road with loaded backpacks and M-16 rifles.
"We got some colorful looks from some people," he said. "Our weapons were pointed down. I don't see why some people were scared."
In less than two months, the unit is scheduled to ship out to Fort Dix, N.J. for field training, then on to Iraq sometime in late summer - exactly when is classified. Capt. Eric Lendewig, the unit's commanding officer, said Somera is a fine soldier.
"He's excellent," Lendewig said. "We have a dream team here. It's easy for me because I can essentially give them what they need and stand back and watch, and they make me look good."
Somera pulled out four 155-millimeter artillery shells, each about two feet tall, and explained the purpose of the unit.
"We're an artillery unit," said Somera, who is in charge of 30 soldiers. "We're the big guns on the battle field. When a forward observer has a target they want to shoot, they call us up. We take this and jam it into a tube, pull the string and it fires. This is the biggest gun the Army has that fires from the ground."
In his 11-year Army career, Somera has had many other roles besides blowing things up. After attending Lodi High School and graduating early from the Liberty home school program, he began his service at age 17 as a calvary scout doing reconnaissance. His mother had to sign his enlistment papers because he was underage.
"All I've ever wanted to do was go into the military," he said. "I always wanted to do things for the greater good and help other people. It seemed like the right move for me. I've always been kind of an aggressive guy."
Stationed in Germany for three years with his wife whom he later divorced, Somera deployed to Bosnia and Albania during the Balkan wars. During that time, his daughter, Chyanne was also born.
"They stayed there through all the deployments," he said. "Our training was vigorous. We would go three, four months and I'd only see them on the weekends. It's hard on families. It's a hard life for a military kid."
Somera finished his active duty in Hawaii and left the Army in 2003.
"It was time to get out," he said. "I needed to get out for my daughter."
Somera tried a few security jobs and completed the police academy, but he had trouble readjusting to civilian life. He decided to join the National Guard so he could continue to get his Army fix one weekend a month. With the Guard, he has deployed to Guantanamo Bay and New Orleans, but this upcoming deployment will be his first time in a war zone since the Balkan War.
"I am very excited," he said. "This is what we've all been training to do. It's hard to tell my family that. They all know it's what I love to do."
Somera has three sisters and two brothers, one of whom is stationed in Germany with the Army. His father, Lodi police Lt. Chet Somera, said he is proud of the choices his son has made but concerned for his safety in Iraq.
"Of course I'm worried," Chet Somera said. "He has a lot of people praying for him. We know he can take care of himself. I'd much rather him not go there, but it's one of the things he has to do."
Somera said the only thing that scares him about this war is the guerilla tactics of the insurgents and their use of improvised explosive devices - booby traps that have claimed the lives of many soldiers.
"I have three good friends of mine that were killed over there and all three were killed by IEDs," he said. "You can't see it coming. It's cowardice. That's the only thing that I am concerned with. The IEDs are scary. I'm not so much scared for myself; it's more for my soldiers. I don't want to have to be the guy to write home."
Somera said he has talked with his daughter, who is now 10, about his upcoming departure. He said she was upset at first, but she has come to understand why her father has to go off to war.
"She was really scared because she knows what goes on in Iraq, but she also knows it's what I like to do and that I'm going over there to help people," he said. "There isn't any way to prepare a kid for mom or dad not coming back."