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Heavy metal

When Carl Offenbacher traded in his real estate license for a welder's torch, he had no idea he would one day be repairing armored vehicles in a war zone in Afghanistan.

The 51-year-old lifelong Applegate Valley resident sold real estate for 24 years before following his passion.

"I have a goal of running my own metal fabrication business," says Offenbacher. "A welding shop, including ornamental ironwork and furniture repair. I've always wanted a home business associated with the farm here."

His transition began with a two-year welding program at Rogue Community College.

"Their welding program is great," Offenbacher says. "It was enough of a credential — a two-year degree — to get me hired on. It has really equipped me well for what I'm doing now."

His first welding job was fabricating fish screens for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Central Point, a job he held for more than two years. He then learned about an overseas job through the grapevine.

"My cousin Mike was in the service in Virginia at the time," Offenbacher explains. "He knew a guy at church who worked for this company V.S.E. doing work in Kuwait. They had an opening for welders."

Offenbacher sent in his resumé and ended up with a six-month contract that paid enough to allow him to begin saving for his metal fabrication business. That contract was nonrenewable, and it took four months for the next overseas welding contract to materialize.

A far more dangerous contract.

The new six-month contract was with the South Carolina-based Force Protection and landed him at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistani border. This base served as the launch and return point for the unit that killed Osama Bin Laden earlier this year. It's also a target for rockets fired by the Taliban.

"We get rocket attacks about once a week," Offenbacher says. "After awhile you sort of get used to it. But not completely. They come in the evenings. There's a pattern to them, though they're not exactly predictable."

Offenbacher and the 20,000 other civilians and military personnel on the base hear many explosions each week, but most are caused by controlled or accidental explosions, not rocket attacks. They never know whether the noise and the vibrations are caused by an attack until they hear the wail of the warning siren.

"This base is an old Russian base with extensive minefields, and every so often they find one, either accidentally or intentionally," says Offenbacher. "They might be excavating a water line and find one."

What in the civilian world is a routine task requires specialized equipment on the "All the excavation equipment is armored," Offenbacher says. "It's really odd to see a backhoe with armor plating and thick glass windows on it."

This is where Offenbacher's work fits in.

"We repair and upgrade route-clearing vehicles with heavy-duty armor," he says. The vehicles are used to clear routes of IEDs, roadside bombs called improvised explosive devices.

To insiders, his work is known as BDR: battle damage repair.

Civilian life on a war-zone military base is far more regimented than life stateside, but some of the biggest differences come in the small things like eating and sleeping.

"We (civilians) live in a barracks with 400 guys, all in bunk beds," says Offenbacher. "The food is very good, kind of a buffet with fresh fruits and vegetables and meat and potatoes. It's kind of like Hometown Buffet, but eating in your favorite restaurant seven days a week."

Offenbacher pats his stomach. He's lost weight since he began working in Afghanistan.

The blond in his hair and neatly trimmed goatee have almost turned white in the past few years. When Offenbacher talks, more often than not, he's smiling and laughing. He seems to understand intuitively the value of the peaceful bucolic life, and is fully enjoying his brief vacation before stepping back into the war zone.

Offenbacher relaxed at home for two weeks before shipping back Thursday for a new six-month contract at the Bagram Air Base.

During this overseas work, Carl's wife Donna, along with their three children and foster child, have picked up the slack on the farm. Friends and neighbors have pitched in, too.

With a husband in a war zone, there are other considerations.

"Emotionally, it's difficult," says Donna Offenbacher. "But we both feel that if it's your time, then it's your time."

A year ago Offenbacher began to build a welding shop for his new business in a converted barn on the family farm bordering Route 238 between Ruch and Applegate. He strides through this workspace efficiently as if aware of the value of time. In Afghanistan, Offenbacher works 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

No break.

He refers to this unrelenting schedule as "The Groundhog Day effect," after the movie in which actor Bill Murray's character wakes up each morning only to repeat the same day over and over again.

With such a demanding and stressful job, two things keep him going.

"I go to a church there on Sunday nights. It's been a really positive thing for me," says Offenbacher. "It's in a tent with an army pastor. I really look forward to that."

The seriousness and the importance of the work is his other motivation.

"We're improving these vehicles, and making them better for the soldiers," Offenbacher explains. "Once you grasp that, you get a whole new investment in the job. You meet the guys who drive them."

He'll never know whose life or limb was saved by the new, thicker armor plating of his latest welding project.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

Welder Carl Offenbacher, with his dog Yogi, talks about his experience repairing route-clearing vehicles in Afghanistan while working in his Applegate Valley shop Wednesday during a break between contracts overseas. - Julia Moore