CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- Don’t compare Cpl. Stephen Babbitt’s sandy-blonde-colored hair to Cpl. Allen Ryals’ dark chestnut variety. Or Babbitt’s ice blue eyes to Ryals’ hazel hue. Ignore their distinctly different last names, and you might just see them the way they see themselves; as family.
“We’re not brothers by blood; we’re brothers by choice,” stated Ryals. “We’ll do anything for each other without ever asking for anything back.”
Ryals and Babbitt, both 23 years old, grew up in the Deep South community of Tylertown, Miss. Their history dates back to their days in Tylertown Elementary School, where they met while attending the same 2nd Grade class.
Later on, as life at home worsened for Ryals, he would grow closer to his surrogate family.
“Both of my parents just seemed to give up on their children. It’s like they felt they wanted to do more with their own lives than with the kids,” stated Ryals, whose parents divorced around the time he was in 6th Grade. “That was about the time we (Babbitt’s family and him) really came to be like a family. I wanted that connection that kids have with their parents, and I found it with his mom.”
They kept their bond alive through the adolescent years that often separate many childhood friends.
“In high school, we were the class clowns who could still make the highest grades,” Babbitt said, recalling how he and Ryals playfully tormented their English teachers. “We’d also be at each other’s houses after school all the time.”
After graduating Tylertown High School in 2000 and going separate ways for awhile, the pair came together again in 2002 to work for Denstil Flooring. There, Ryals and Babbitt worked laying tile and carpeting while discussing their ideas for the future.
“We started talking about doing something challenging, like joining the Marine Corps,” Babbitt said. “We ended up signing up together, when we came in (the recruiting office) and told the recruiter, ‘We’re ready to join right now.’”
The military would separate the two further than they had ever been before, Ryals said. As a combat engineer, Ryals’ Marine Corps career would take him to Okinawa, Japan. Babbitt would work as a military working dog handler out of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., sniffing out drugs and explosives. Nevertheless, these best friends kept in touch and saw each other intermittently while on coinciding leave periods.
Three years after joining, Babbitt and Ryals found themselves reunited half a world away from their Mississippi home. They would both be probing for insurgent-emplaced explosives and weapons; Babbitt with his four-legged friend, Boxy, and Ryals with his trusty AN-PSS/14 handheld mine detector.
Ryals and his fellow engineers, based out of Camp Baharia, had been supporting 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment search for weapons caches and improvised explosive devices in and around northern Fallujah since mid-March. Meanwhile, best friend Babbitt and his K-9 companion rooted out terrorists near Al Asad Airfield in western Iraq.
“I’m up in Al Asad one day when they told me they needed a K-9 handler to come down to Baharia,” Babbitt stated. “At first I didn’t want to move, but when I made the connection to where I was going, I was like ‘hell yeah!’”
Inseparable since childhood, the pair came together once more in mid-September, one month before Ryals is slated to head home. Nevertheless, the friends are making the most of this brief time together and spending their off hours catching up and reminiscing about days gone by.
“Our stay in Iraq has actually been the longest time we’ve gotten to spend together since we’ve been in the Marine Corps,” Babbitt said. “Even though we don’t operate together, we still see each other as much as possible when we’re off.”
For now, both Ryals and Babbitt look forward to completing this and any future tours of duty in Iraq. Both are uncertain as to whether they will make the Marine Corps a career, but remain grateful for the enriching experiences that their time in the military has afforded them.
“If anything, the Marine Corps has helped us see that no matter what obstacles come our way, we’ll always be friends,” Ryals explained. “We’ve been friends since we were eight, and nothing has ever come between that.”
“To this day, we’ve never had an argument. I’ve never thrown a crooked eye at him,” Babbitt said, agreeing with Ryals. “I’ve got a penny to my name, and he knows that if he asks for it, he can have it.”