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Auburn Marine returns wounded, proud of U.S. Afghan effort

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The casualties were high, the physical dangers many and Afghan people often hostile. For Placer High School grad and Auburn native Sgt. James Finney, the tour of duty that started last September and ended April 22 with his return to California was a life-changer. Stationed in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghanistan campaign, Finney led a squadron on foot patrols through firefights and areas littered with deadly IEDs (land mines called improvised explosive devices). He experienced the pain of seeing two of his fellow soldiers fall, both being injured by explosions. A corporal lost both his legs and almost lost an arm. A team leader was rocked by a 40-pound IED. Both survived. So did Finney, after an Afghan engaged in small arms fire with his group touched off an IED below his feet that was loaded with bolts, nails and pieces of bicycle spokes. The force of the explosion broke Finney’s hand and sent shrapnel into his body. Months later, Finney is still turning up small pieces of exploded material. “A couple of days ago, I found a small rock in my ear,” Finney said. Finney, who also served with the 5th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton in Iraq four years ago, wears the ribbon for a Purple Heart medal. Back in California this week, he returned home with his wife of a year, Madison, to visit his parents, Larry and Jennifer Finney in Auburn. Over the 700 Marines in his 3rd Battalion going out last September to Afghanistan, 25 were killed and 200 returned to the U.S. as amputees, Finney said. “For the first couple of months, there were firefights every day but then it got colder and they didn’t want to fight so they started putting down IEDs,” he said. A sergeant responsible for a squad of 11, Finney said that he was on foot patrol for most of the seven months he spent in the Sangin District. “Mentally, the guys held up fine but it’s physically demanding,” he said. “We were in the city of Sangin in an area known as Death Valley with everyone carrying between 60 and 180 pounds on their backs.” “The biggest challenge was probably keeping guys in the game,” Finney said. “We were pulling out 15 IEDs a day. When I got blown up I was lucky. Most who have that happen are amputees or are killed.” Madison Finney, 21, has been married a year to James but the two first met while attending Placer High together. Months into their marriage, James was gone with his regiment. “It’s stressful,” Madison said. “Communication was limited – mostly through letters. There were four or five phone calls total.” Madison and James Finney are now looking forward to at least the next two years of living at Camp Pendleton, where James will work as an infantry instructor. “My philosophy when he was in Afghanistan was ‘no news is good news,’” Madison said. “That’s kind of what we lived by.” Finney, 23, said that the message he wants to leave with people is that while his tour of duty is over, the work in Afghanistan for other Marines goes on. “I get back and breathe a sigh of relief but there is still a ton of brothers, sons, husbands who went over there to relieve us,” the 2005 Placer High grad said. “Some people wave the flag on Memorial Day or wave it when Osama bin Laden is killed. But if we’re going to be proud of it we should be proud of it all the time.”