U.S. Soldier Returns From Afghanistan to 'Hipster Heaven' Home

By Meredith Hoffman on September 10, 2013 7:05am 

GREENPOINT — Lounging by his single-speed bike against a tree in McCarren Park, Dennis Tierney seemed to fit perfectly into the neighborhood. But as his fellow 20-somethings returned from summer jaunts to the beach or music festivals, Tierney was back from a rarer North Brooklyn sabbatical: embedded with police in Afghanistan.

Tierney, 29, a captain in the New York Army National Guard, volunteered as part of a special unit, training border police in Afghanistan to defend against the Taliban. His eight-month deployment ended last month.

And now that he's back, Tierney admits he's a minority both in the military and among his Brooklyn friends.

"Everybody made fun of me. They called me 'The Hipster,'" Tierney laughed of the 14 members of his unit, the Security Force Assistance Team (called SFAT). He said his commander even put the nickname on his military challenge coin, a token honoring soldiers for their hard work. 

But here in North Brooklyn, where Tierney has lived the past seven years, he's wary of responses from new acquaintances if he mentions his service.

"I don't usually tell people," admitted Tierney, one of just five Greenpoint members of New York's Army National Guard (compared with 2,500 in the city and 10,500 in the state), according to a guard spokesman.

Although his two identities may seem in conflict, Tierney said his experiences in Afghanistan actually drew him more fervently to his Brooklyn community — partly because he became "more open" to all people by living with soldiers from such different backgrounds.

"My counterpart was a 26-year-old Afghan with two kids and a wife," Tierney said of the border police member he trained to handle the group's operations. "This guy had a completely different life but we were so connected. We became really good friends."

Tierney and his unit ate every meal with the Afghan police and they relied on one another for everything, since they were stationed 2 1/2 hours away from the nearest base, he said.

A National Guard spokesman said the unit's risky role was key in "the United States' strategy to produce Afghan security forces that can fight and survive without U.S. assistance."

"These guys are the boots on the ground working with the actual people," said the spokesman, Eric Durr. "Everybody is supposed to be training their Afghan counterpart."

Tierney — a Virginia native whose service follows that of his father, grandfather and great uncle —  laughed that his unit called Brooklyn "hipster heaven."

And he said he'd become more aware of the neighborhood's quirks since he returned.

"This is great, this is the life," he said, jeans stretched out in McCarren Park's grass.

"My cousin has the taco truck Endless Summer and my friend Felipe has a bike tour company. My other friend Jeff is a photographer for National Geographic...and my friend Jess has a handbag company called 'Brooklyn Bits.'"

His friend Felipe Lavalle, who runs Get Up and Ride and met Tierney playing rugby together in high school, agreed that Tierney had changed "for the better" upon returning and was "definitely more open and willing to try new things."

Before his deployment, Tierney worked as a community liaison for Sam Schwartz Engineering on construction projects on the Williamsburg Bridge and the Second Avenue subway.

He plans to start studying for an MBA in January.

"I appreciate everything so much more now," mused Tierney, who said he planned to remain in the National Guard until retirement.

Now that he's back in Brooklyn, Tierney's hitting up his favorite local spots, especially Spritzenhaus beer hall, No Name bar, McGolrick Park and Skinny Dennis watering hole.

But even as he basks in the peace and flair of the neighborhood, Tierney said his transition has had its rough edges, like the occasional unexpected noise that jolts him into memories of Afghanistan.

"Even when you go to shower you're carrying your pistol with you...You're always being alert," he recalled. "I'm always going to have the military thing floating around."

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