HINSDALE, N.H. -- When Sgt. David Ainsworth, 40, of Brattleboro, Vt., returned from his first military deployment in 1991, he struggled mightily with some of the decisions he had to make.
"We had to do some really evil things. Such is the nature of war," David said. "You start second guessing yourself and asking, ‘Did I do the right thing?' which is a dangerous path as a soldier,"
Looking down the scope of his rifle, he pulled the trigger, killing his target. The act of killing someone wasn't what haunted David however.
"Searching the body I found his wallet and in it was a picture of his family," David said. "Seeing them destroyed me. I didn't see them as anything but the emotionless enemy."
Attempting to adapt back into civilian life seemed impossible, which put massive stresses on his first marriage and eventually led to his divorce.
"I don't blame her for anything," he said. "When I got back I was cold, and no amount of love was going to melt that."
During that time he also lost the restaurant he and his business partner had owned and operated.
"I hit rock bottom," David said. "I didn't think I'd ever go back into the military but I didn't have much else left. I never believed that my first wife and I wouldn't be together."
Distraught David attempted to take his own life.
"I took more than 180 sleeping pills and chased it down with a 12-pack (of beer)," he said.
After calling his ex-wife on the phone and explaining the situation, she was able to contact the police.
"The crazy thing was I couldn't sleep. Life slowed way down and what seemed like a few seconds to get dressed probably took 20-30 minutes," David said.
Walking downstairs, he was met by police and instead of explaining the person who took the pills was still upstairs he admitted it was him. After getting help he decided he needed to see his ex-wife again.
He drove to see her one last time -- unsuccessfully -- but on his return trip home something unexpected happened, something he didn't realize until years later was "the beginning of my healing process."
Driving home he realized the tractor-trailer in front of him was making the same turns. David picked up his citizens band radio, and talked to the driver and son realized they had something in common. The driver was a soldier during the Vietnam war and had experienced similar tragedy.
"He told me that he lost his house and his wife to divorce but that eventually it got better," David said.
Rejoining the military, David was sent for training in Fort Hood, Texas, and while off-duty he walked into a bar and saw what he describes as "the reason I knew I was in the right place."
"He walked right up to me and told me how beautiful I was," Jenifer Ainsworth said. "I asked him how many beers did he had."
The short interaction wouldn't be their last, as David returned the next night and explained that God had sent him there for a reason -- her. Just before he was going to be deployed to Iraq for his second tour in 2003, David asked Jenifer to marry him and the two were wed a day shy of a year from meeting.
David spent 8 years in active duty for the Army until his family moved to Hinsdale, N.H., and he joined the Vermont National Guard.
Grace was born while he was stationed in Iraq from 2004-2005, when Jacob was only 8 and was only able to help his mother as much as an 8-year-old could, Jenifer said.
While David was on his third tour, Jacob was instrumental in keeping the family together.
"I couldn't have made it through the deployment without him," Jenifer said.
Like father, like step-son
At 14 years old, Jacob Harne is not an average teenager. Between caring for his two younger half-sisters, Grace, 6, and Emma, 2, while David was away.
"There's a fine line between being a kid and learning to live like an adult," David said.
Jacob is in the middle of that transition, which began just before David's deployment, he said.
The relationship between step-father and step-son can be tumultuous and often chaotic, but as Jacob gets older the bond has become stronger and a friendship is growing.
"It'll take a while to see how everything's changed in the past year, but he really stepped up while I was gone," David said about Jacob.
As a cook in Delta Company 3rd and 172 mountain infantry, David said he and Jacob faced similar difficulties during the deployment.
Grace has numerous food allergies and, to make her feel more comfortable, Jacob began eating everything she did and eventually cooking for the whole family and caring for them as well.
Nearly every weekday, Jacob gets home from school around 2:40 p.m., and has just enough time to put his stuff away before meeting Grace at the bus and picking up Emma from the neighbors. He then has the challenge of entertaining them both.
"We'll either watch TV first if Grace doesn't have a lot of homework, or play a board game," Jacob said. "Then I'll get them ready for bed and make dinner."
Dinners usually consist of either leftovers from the night before, dishes he and Jenifer made the previous day or pizza made from a special dough Jacob makes special because of Grace's dietary restrictions.
"I get paid for it, so it's good motivation," Jacob said.
When David left, Jacob volunteered for the position at first to help out his mother, she said. On the weekends, he says he still gets to go hang out with his friends.
The biggest difference his mother noticed, however, was his new dedication to school work.
"He's really excelled at science and math and even shares experiments with the girls after they get home, Jenifer said.
"I feel very blessed by both the men in my life."
Taking 10th grade science classes as a freshman and with much-improved grades, Jacob said he hopes to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology after high school and study computers.
Last weekend, David returned from his most recent deployment on Dec. 11 to the surprise of Grace and Emma.
Grace said she can't wait to spend as much quality time with her dad as possible.
Serving in the Vermont National Guard, David and Jenifer are fairly certain he'll be called for a fourth tour.
Until then, David, who worked a security guard at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, will resume his job.
Josh Stilts can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.