Marsan getting ready for tour in Afghanistan

On Nick Marsan's right arm is a tattoo of his grandfather in uniform. He remembers hearing World War II stories from him that made him want to be a part of the military.

On his left arm is part of the soldier's creed. In black ink, it reads: "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade."

"It's there for me as a reminder of my role as firefighter and as a soldier, and also as a father and as a brother and a friend," he said. "They're words I choose to live my life by."

Marsan , a Fairfield native, Westport firefighter and a 36-year-old father of two, will soon be heading to Afghanistan. He's not allowed to say exactly when, where he's going or what he'll be doing there. He knew when he enlisted in the National Guard in 2006 that there was a chance he would head to Iraq or Afghanistan. Once he got the news, he stoically accepted it.

"I felt that if that were to be the case, then it was my duty -- my turn to serve our country, and I would," he said.

Any firefighter can speak of the bonds they have with others who chose that line of duty. For Marsan , he also sees that camaraderie in the military. He was on active duty in the U.S. Army from 1991 to 1999 and was stationed throughout the country before enlisting once again years later.

"Regardless of anything else going on, you rely on each other," he said. "We're willing to do anything for each other with whatever arises. With that said, there's definitely a brotherhood in the military and it's definitely exemplified in the fire department as well."

Brotherly advice

Before he heads to Afghanistan, Marsan has been getting advice from his brothers, whether they're bound by blood or forged by fire.

His younger brother Ernie was in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne, and his youngest brother, Stephen, is in the National Guard. Since Ernie had fought overseas, he's been telling his oldest brother ways to keep other troops motivated, how to pass the time and how to stay focused.

"Basically take it one day at a time," said Ernie, who now manages his family's restaurant, Partner's Cafe in East Norwalk, and is attending culinary school.

"You do everything in moderation. You just focus on what you're doing at that moment and put everything out of your mind. If you do that, you have a good chance of making it through the year and going home. If you start thinking of everyone back home, you might become unfocused. You have to put it at the back of the head. I told him almost to become mindless but focused -- if that makes sense."

It was because of Nick, Ernie's older brother by 10 years, that Ernie joined the U.S. Army. He said he looked up to Nick and what he was doing on active service, so he followed in his footsteps. Stephen also did the same.

"I watched how it changed us for the good and it motivated us and gave us a lot of direction in life," said Ernie, who now manages his family's restaurant, Partner's Cafe in Norwalk, and is attending culinary school.

A family of firefighters

At Westport Fire Headquarters on the Post Road, a couple of the firefighters have backgrounds in the military. One of them is Pete Nichio, a six-year veteran of the fire department and a former Marine. He was deployed during the Gulf War and later in Somalia. His unit was relieved of duty by the unit that soon became involved in the Battle of Mogadishu -- otherwise known as Black Hawk Down. He's been giving Marsan advice on what to do before deployment, whether he's seeking it or not.

"Try to get as much relaxation time as you can," he said. "Have some days where you just sit back and do nothing because there aren't going to be any days like that -- ever. Family and friends are probably the No. 1 priority."

He's also told him of the homesickness that will likely settle in being so far from friends, family and home.

"Where I was . . . in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Somalia . . . you even miss the grass," Nichio said. "We came home to Norfolk, Va., and it was green because it was June. We were like, `Oh my god, grass.' It's just stupid things like that. Home cooking, all sorts of things. You miss the smell of home, you know?"

Last week, Fire Chief Christopher Ackley was in San Antonio to accept a government award recognizing the department's employer support for people in the National Guard and the Army Reserves. He said Marsan `s job will "absolutely" be there for him when he comes back.

"We're there for each other," said Ackley, who added, "I hope he has an uneventful tour. We're very concerned for him."

`That which they defend'

As he preps for his departure, Marsan said time now has been precious, especially when he spends it with his daughter, Cheyenne, 14, and son, Nick Jr., 9. Every moment counts. It's a difficult time, and he's grateful for the support that the fire department and the rest of the town has given him.

"I think the biggest challenge with the impending deployment as a guard member is that no matter what you do . . . it's always at the back of your mind that you have to prepare for this upcoming military service."

His children, however, are at the forefront of his mind. He's been "making sure they're going to be OK while I'm gone and . . . doing my best to let them know I'm a part of their lives even though I'm far away."

Despite the sacrifice of putting his life back home on hold for a while, Marsan said he is honored to serve. His family was raised to give what they can, and he recited a quote from memory by author J.R.R. Tolkien that described that belief.

"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love that which they defend."