War without end 

On the first day of winter, just three days before Christmas, family and friends of 24-year-old Army Pfc. Shawn Murphy gathered in Butte to lay the fallen soldier to rest. Murphy, who died in Iraq Dec. 10, was one of three Montana service members killed in action in less than two weeks in December: U.S. Army Spc. Scott Dykman, 27, of Helena, was killed by an improvised explosive device (the Defense Department hasn’t released any more details) and Marine Lance Cpl. Nick Palmer, 19, of Great Falls, was killed by sniper fire in the Al Anbar province Dec. 16.

Sitting in KT’s Hayloft Saloon & Deli in Lolo, 130 miles from Pfc. Murphy’s funeral service, 26-year-old Army Spc. Alton Helm of the Alpha Company, 81st Brigade Troops Battalion drinks a cup of coffee while he waits for his fellow Army Reservist and roommate to get back from Helena so the two can begin an evening of holiday celebration.

Helm, a self-described career soldier who reenlisted for a second six-year term three weeks ago, says he isn’t concerned about news of a new Secretary of Defense or the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations or the implications of a Democratically controlled Congress. While much of the country contemplates the uncertainties that lie ahead in the Iraq quagmire, Helm is focused on his career path.

“I already know what 2007 has in store for me,” he says, sipping his coffee and crushing a smoldering cigarette. “I’m going to learn Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.”

Regardless of what President George W. Bush ultimately decides regarding redeployment of troops in Iraq, Helm is certain that the United States will continue to have a strong presence in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. And while many Americans might cringe at that prospect, for Helm it means rock-solid job security.

“I think we’re always going to have troops in Arabic-speaking countries, so I’m always going to have work,” he says. “I’m not worried about being deployed. That’s my bread and butter.”

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