Still dressed in his uniform, Tim Wilhelm looked into the camera.
"Hey, Brandon, it's Tim. Just got back from war."
He said it so casually it was startling, as though it was something in passing.
Wilhelm, 29, arrived home to Monroe, Ohio—just north of Cincinnati—last Friday, Feb. 27, after nearly a five-month tour in Afghanistan. He was welcomed by his fiancee, Margi Sammons. However, his close friend, Brandon Hough, a former Air Force officer himself, couldn't be there to welcome him home.
Hough also knew he wouldn't be able to attend Tim and Margi's wedding in July, so he did what he could to make up for both absences. Waiting for Wilhelm in a gift bag was a present Hough knew his friend would freak out over: an autographed Texas Tech helmet and two Red Raider hats.
"Oh my God," Wilhelm said as he opened the bag with the camera rolling. "Whaaaaaaat?"
"'To Lt. Wilhelm, thanks for your service'—Kliff Kingsbury," the helmet read. "Guns up."
Hough had reached out to Texas Tech in the weeks prior to Wilhelm's return to the U.S., notifying the school that his friend was a longtime Red Raiders fan. Hough asked if there was anything Kingsbury, Texas Tech's head coach, could sign for Wilhelm as a surprise. Hough added that he would gladly pay any costs, but all Tech asked for in response was a mailing address.
When reached for a statement, a Tech official said that Kingsbury wished to send the items without receiving public credit.
The mission was still accomplished, though. Nothing could wipe the smile off of Wilhelm's face on this day. However big or small, the gesture was a symbol of home for a man who spent more than four months away from it.
That is how Kingsbury made the day of an American hero.
A Friendly Rivalry
Wilhelm has moved all over the map, but a corner of his heart still lies in West Texas.
After living in El Paso and the Midland-Odessa regions throughout his childhood and teenage years, Wilhelm attended Texas Tech from 2004-08 and graduated from the ROTC detachment. Following a three-year stint at Northern Kentucky's law school, Wilhelm met Hough at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio.
Hough was an Air Force Academy graduate while Wilhelm jokingly described Tech as the "Harvard of the Texas panhandle." Soon, the two discovered they had a passion for college football and a friendship blossomed—as did a friendly rivalry.
There was smack talking and wagers placed. In 2013, the Falcons finished with a 2-10 record. Wilhelm made sure Hough knew.
"I always tell him that he went to a trade school," Wilhelm said.
When Sammons began dating Wilhelm in August 2013, she realized quickly that Red Raider football was more than a pastime for her boyfriend. "I didn’t realize how much he loved it until every Saturday [in the fall] when we had to be home by a certain time so we could watch the Texas Tech game. And if we did miss it, he’d have it TiVo’d and nobody could tell him the score."
On Oct. 19, 2013, Wilhelm and Sammons took their first big trip together to Morgantown, West Virginia, to watch Tech beat WVU 37-27. "It’s the closest Texas Tech gets to playing in Ohio," she said.
Afghanistan: Oct. 2014—Feb. 2015
Last April, Wilhelm got the news. He was being deployed to Afghanistan in October for a four-and-a-half-month tour. It was something he had wanted to do. His now-fiancee? She was shocked but supportive.
"A lot of times, they are called into duty and it gets called off at the last minute," she explained. "So come August we hadn’t heard anything about it being cancelled. I thought ‘OK, this is really happening.’"
Wilhelm deployed on Oct. 14 to do his job halfway across the world—away from family, friends and the sport he loved so dearly. Communication was difficult. Wilhelm and Sammons spoke on the phone once or twice a week and emailed as often as they could.
Rarely did Wilhelm get into details about the rocket attacks. He didn't want to worry Margi.
They didn't happen every day. There'd be stretches without any and days with multiple barrages. The artillery shells weren't always accurate or even fully functional on a consistent basis. Some of them were old Soviet weapons, Wilhelm said. But the rockets fell often enough to keep everyone on their toes.
“We had 48 while I was there," Wilhelm said of the attacks. "There were more attacks when I was there than they’d ever had before. I think it was partly because we were pulling out of Afghanistan and the Taliban were attacking bases more in an effort to hurry up that process."
As a contracting officer, Wilhelm rarely left Bagram Air Field, site of the U.S. Air Force central command located about 30 minutes north of the Afghanistan capital of Kabul. When he did, it was by helicopter to transport him between bases. According to Wilhelm, he never encountered an attack outside the walls of the base.
Still, the artillery shells fell. Sometimes far away, other times as close as a couple of hundred yards. The warning siren would sound but would soon be replaced by the booms of exploding weaponry. If there wasn't a bunker nearby to seek shelter, your only option was to hit the deck and hope for the best.
This was life over there.
Jogging with a friend one time, Wilhelm heard the warning siren but found himself in no-man's land with no bunkers nearby. Searching for shelter, Wilhelm and his friend ducked behind a T-wall, a roughly 12-foot-high blast protector.
"There weren’t any bunkers around," Wilhelm said. "There are these concrete barriers all around the place called T-walls. We ran to a T-wall and picked a side to hide, and the rocket came down not far from us on the other side of the wall.
"It was scary as hell."
Now back in the U.S., Wilhelm's life returns to normal: family, friends and Texas Tech football. When he hugged Margie in the airport, it was the first time he had seen her face-to-face since his deployment.
"I don't miss it over there," he said of Afghanistan.
Tim and Margi plan to return to Morgantown on Nov. 7, 2015, when the Red Raiders take on the Mountaineers. They'll have their guns up again, but this time, a new connection to their favorite coach as well.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.