Columbia native Joe Bastedo went from preparing pizzas in his hometown to clearing roadside bombs in the unforgiving conditions of Afghanistan.
Bastedo is on reserve in the National Guard and is the manager of the Village Idiot Pizzeria in Forest Acres. Village Idiot is in the same building where Bastedo has worked as a pizza chef since high school.
“I’m Italian, so I’ve been tossing pies for a long time,” Bastedo chuckled.
On top of his military position and his job at Village Idiot, Bastedo is a mechanical engineering student at Midlands Technical College.
After graduating from Spring Valley High School with a 3.8 GPA, Bastedo decided to sign up for service in the National Guard.
“I never thought I’d join the military,” Bastedo said, despite the fact that his father, grandfather and two of his uncles served. “Just kind of did it. Twenty grand sign-on bonus and no student loans looked pretty good.”
After signing up, Bastedo went to Fort Jackson for medical testing and to be sworn in as a National Guardsman. He then spent four months at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training and returned to Columbia before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.
Bastedo served as a combat engineer, clearing booby traps and disarming improvised explosive devices, commonly known as IEDs, along Afghan roadsides.
“It’s a different environment, going from somewhere where you’re just hanging out to somewhere where everyone’s trying to kill you,” Bastedo said. “You learn to count on the people next to you.”
Bastedo and his fellow guardsmen stayed in what were known as “b-huts,” short for barrack huts. B-huts are plywood buildings with eight rooms per hallway and are built to temporarily house troops in places without infrastructure or building materials.
Bastedo’s unit went on long missions that would result in the men sleeping on or under their vehicles.
“There were times we were sleeping outside, getting snowed on trying to sleep under a truck,” Bastedo said.
If Bastedo’s unit had a mission, the night before was dedicated to the mission brief and packing everything they would need for the mission.
The wake-up call was early. Vehicles and weapons had to be inspected and double-checked. Once everything was ready, the men moved out.
Bastedo and his men primarily dealt with route clearance missions, making sure widely traveled roads were clear of IEDs.
“If you don’t see anything, it’s so boring,” said Bastedo. “You’re driving 3 to 5 miles an hour, for 36 plus hours, just bored to tears. But when you do find something, or you get ambushed, it gets pretty crazy.”
And Bastedo has firsthand knowledge of just how crazy an ambush can be.
“It was a complex attack. They had an IED in the ground, and we rolled up and found it. As soon as we started messing with the IED, they started launching rockets and mortars,” Bastedo said.
Bastedo said that after an IED is planted along the road, a lookout camps out in the area. If a military vehicle approaches, the lookout alerts someone else, and that person connects the IED to a battery pack. Once the IED is hooked up to the battery pack, the lookout detonates the explosive when a vehicle drives by.
On Oct. 1, 2010, a roadside IED hit a vehicle in Bastedo’s unit, killing two men.
Sgt. Luther Rabon Jr. and Staff Sgt. Willie Harley Jr. were killed after their vehicle was hit by an IED. Both men were recently inducted into the South Carolina National Guard Hall of Fame.
“It scared everybody,” Bastedo said. “It was our second month in country, but we had to push through.”
Bastedo wears a bracelet commemorating the date of the attack and the names of both Sgt. Rabon and Staff Sgt. Harley. He wears the bracelet so much, it has left a tan line on his wrist.
The bracelet, getting a job and enrolling at Midlands Tech all helped Bastedo in his transition back to civilian life.
“The hardest part was the change of pace. Not always having to move. Not waking up at 3 in the morning to get out and push yourself to do stuff,” Bastedo said.
Before he joined the military, Bastedo was the manager of the restaurant that was in the building before Village Idiot took it over. Then, Village Idiot hired him as a cook. After coming back from Afghanistan, he found that the restaurant needed a manager and knew he’d be perfect for the job.
“You know I can do it. I did it for the restaurant that was here before,” Bastedo remembers telling his former boss at Village Idiot.
When he’s not preparing pizzas, Bastedo focuses his efforts on his schoolwork. The 24-year-old sophomore is taking four classes: chemistry, calculus, an engineering course and public speaking.
Bastedo has always had an interest in engineering and mechanics. Even before his experience in the military, he said, he was always mechanically inclined and loved taking things apart and putting them back together.
Using his mechanical engineering major, Bastedo hopes to develop vehicles that run off alternative fuels.
“I love cars. I didn’t just want to be a mechanic in a grease monkey shop. I wanted to be on the forefront of developing these things,” said Bastedo.
Bastedo enjoys his time at Village Idiot and Midlands Tech, but he puts his service first. He recently started a new six-year contract with the National Guard reserve and will never forget his time in Afghanistan.
“At times, it was hell,” said Bastedo. “It’s a beautiful country. You could stop out in the middle of nowhere and see the mountains in the background and a billion stars in the sky, and it’s like ‘if they could stop fighting, I might buy a vacation home out here.’”