Army paratrooper Austin Honrath isn't afraid of jumping out of airplanes in Iraq, but getting him to pose for a photo while he is home on a 30-day convalescent leave is a bit of a challenge.
Honrath, a former Newport Beach lifeguard, is a "little bit shy," so when an entourage of more than 50 of his friends and family members came to the airport to greet him as he returned home last month after being injured in a suicide car bombing, he was quite taken aback.
"It was amazing to see there are that many people who are supportive of what I do," the 22-year-old Huntington Beach resident said. "I didn't cry when I got hit that day, I didn't cry in the E.R., but that was definitely a tearful moment."
"That day" was March 17. Based at an abandoned, two-story school with a cinderblock perimeter in the Diyala province — immediately northeast of Baghdad — Honrath and his team had just returned from an 11-hour foot patrol through the neighborhood, searching homes to ensure that they complied with the one-weapon, one-magazine limit as they passed out blankets.
Sitting on the hood of his Humvee reading a recent edition of Surfing magazine, Honrath — who was on his first tour and had been in Iraq about nine months — was startled to hear the soldier at the security post shout out a warning.
"I was engulfed in the article when I heard him yell, 'Get down!' real loud, and I saw a suicide-car bomb come around a blind corner," he said.
The car bomb was about 50 feet away from Honrath, who had rolled onto the ground between two trucks, when it detonated after popping its tires on the barbed wire encircling the base.
"Him warning us is what saved my life, and the lives of many others," he said. "For his actions, he didn't have the chance to take cover."
That soldier died, and — with shrapnel in his head, hand, chest, liver, stomach, knee and calf — Honrath and six others were rushed to the closest air base, where he received an emergency surgical washout, though doctors decided to leave some of the debris to heal itself.
Within days, he was enjoying his favorite meal at the Bluewater Grill in Newport Beach, complete with a cold beer.
"It was amazing, and the weather was beautiful," said Honrath, who is enjoying the "little things" like sleeping with a pillow, receiving phone calls and feeling safe. "I'm not much of a drinker, but that beer sure was pretty great."
Five days into his "vacation," Honrath planned to use the bulk of his time to visit with friends and family, all those who supported him when he enlisted three years ago. After graduating from Marina High School and completing a semester at Orange Coast College, Honrath simply felt compelled to join the Army, knowing that his peers were serving.
"I didn't feel appropriate that other people my age were going out and making a difference and I was sitting here living off their hard work," he said. "My family always taught me that you don't leave a responsibility on someone else's shoulders if you can do it yourself."
Though his parents would prefer to see their eldest of four sons safe at home, they were supportive when Honrath explained his reasoning for enlisting.
"That's really what makes leaving all this easy: the support of my friends, my family and the whole community in general," said Honrath, noting that several of his relatives had previously served in the Army, Air Force and Navy.
Honrath also looks to the five years he worked with the Newport Beach Lifeguards as a contributing factor in his success as a soldier, as it taught him to keep composure in stressful situations and how to serve the people around him.
After leaving the service, he hopes to return to the city, possibly as a firefighter.
"This is where I had my first job when I was 16 and I owe so much to them," he said. "They contributed so much to who I am today, even in the way they conduct the department."
But for the next three weeks, Honrath's plans are pretty simple. In addition to visiting friends and family, he hopes to steadily wean himself off crutches topaddle out and surf at least once before his return to Fort Bragg, N.C..
When abroad, Honrath's mind rarely leaves the water. Though he is enjoying the break, Honrath said he wants to return to Iraq because he feels like the troops are having a positive impact there and he is bothered by the thought of his buddies toiling in his absence.
"Most of the people over there are so supportive of our presence," he said. "They offer us food and chai tea .... I had a 40-year-old man walk up to me and shake my hand."
Most of all, Honrath enjoys interacting with Iraqi children, often kneeling down to draw hearts and happy faces on their hands to demonstrate that the troops are friendly and peaceful.
"I want to have a big impact on that generation so when they are young adults, they can help make difference in their own country," he said.
He also hopes to set an example for the youth back home.
"I grew up really blessed because the generations before me answered the call to defend this country," he said. "Someday, I want to have a family and I want the next generation to have the safety and opportunities I had, recognizing those that fought before them."