Kevin Nickerson takes a step, his Marine-issued boot making a print in the loose dirt.
All quiet. No explosion. No damage.
He takes another step, in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, rifle ready, senses tingling, sweat pouring from under his helmet, down the sides of his face, streaming out of every pore in his body in the 120 degree heat.
Still quiet. He checks his squad members. They're OK too.
That's two more steps that nothing exploded. Two more steps that everyone is alive.
It's not always this quiet.
There were a few times Nickerson, 25, a Lance Corporal, rifleman and squad leader in the Marine Infantry, drove with his squad in their light, armored vehicle right over an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).
"They exploded and destroyed the vehicles," he said.
Nickerson and the other squad members were lucky compared to so many others. The worst damage was a few concussions.
Nickerson wasn't one of the soldiers hurt in those incidents. But some of his buddies were. They're OK, but none of them will ever forget what that was like.
"I think about it every day," said Nickerson, a Point Borough native, lifelong resident and 2005 graduate who played high school and Pop Warner football.
"We never stepped on any IEDs, thank God," he said. "But we drove over them more than once, at least a few times. I can't remember exactly how many times."
When asked how often he and other squad members were in danger, Nickerson said, "I'm not gonna lie to you. Every day we were in harm's way. We were lucky. Luck is the best word to describe how things went for us. The vehicles did a good job protecting us. They're built so well."
The unit traveled in the light, armored vehicle "from point A to point B" and then they were patrolling on foot, hoping they didn't take a step that was deadly or even close, Nickerson said.
And that's the way it was, day in and day out, while Nickerson was deployed in Afghanistan for seven months, the typical Marine deployment.
He was doing reconnaissance which, as he explains it, means trying to figure out who the "bad guys" are, while trying to not step on bombs, while helping Afghans who were struggling to get their lives back to normal.
Nickerson came home to Point Borough in the wee hours of the morning last Wednesday, just in time to rest up for Christmas.
"I'm feeling great," Nickerson said on Friday. "It's good to be home."
His father, Don Nickerson, picked him up at Philadelphia Airport and drove him home to Curtis Avenue, where he and his family have lived since 1996, after moving from another part of the Borough.
Nickerson spent Christmas with his father, his mother, Barbara, and brother, Matt, 24, a Point Beach special police officer.
The Christmas celebration will be followed by a party that the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4715, 603 St. Louis Ave., in Point Beach will throw in his honor on Jan. 6.
But first things first. Kevin started enjoying his vacation the moment he got home.
"It feels good to be back in my own bed," he said.
Nickerson is expecting to report to duty at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina on Jan. 9. He doesn't know yet if he'll be deployed to Afghanistan or elsewhere or remain in the States.
He says he's ready to go wherever he's ordered and if he returns to Afghanistan, he knows he'll be able to again help the people there.
"We were helping the locals a lot," Nickerson said. "They seemed to like us. They had great interaction with us. They seemed happy.
"I want to go back," he said. "The pros definitely outweigh the cons. I love doing what I was doing. We were helping people. It made me feel good. It's definitely a rewarding feeling."
When asked if US involvement in Afghanistan was worth it, he said, "From where I was, in my position, yes, it's worth it, because we were helping people. And helping people is a good thing, whether you're in the US or Afghanistan."
Nickerson describes the Helmand Province as "a normal village" where residents were trying their best to raise their families and live normal lives as much as possible.
"There were sometimes bad guys passing through," said Nickerson. "You could tell when they were there, you could just tell something wasn't right.
"It's always a kinetic environment, but when the bad guys were there long enough, the locals were acting different," he said.
"You're always looking for them," Nickerson said, referring to "the bad guys."
"They could be anyone," he said. "They don't wear uniforms. They look like the locals. You're always on your toes."
When asked what it's like to try to carry out intelligence and reconnaissance activities, all while trying to not step on explosives that aren't visible, Nickerson said, "It takes a toll on you. You're trying to help, you're trying to figure out who's bad and who's good. It takes a toll mentally."
Nickerson said he and his squad never definitively linked anyone to any negative element seeking to upset the peace, so they never made any arrests.
But locals seemed to feel that the presence of the Marines, combined with how they were training and working with Afghan forces, helped keep the peace, he said.
One of the ways the Marines kept things calm was that they were constantly searching people, which Nickerson says helped deter any problematic behavior.
"We always searched people thoroughly," he said. "We were protecting the locals and they were really happy about it."
Nickerson said he and other Marines always picked different locations to do searches.
"The enemy would surprise us, but we'd surprise them," he said. "We did searches at random checkpoints, never in the same place. It kept everybody guessing."
Nickerson said he formed close bonds with other Marines, especially those in his squad.
Nickerson was a junior at the University of West Virginia when he left to join the Marines about two years ago.
With the US deeply involved in wars in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, at that time, Nickerson said he joined knowing he was going to be sent into one of those conflicts.
"I've wanted to be in the military since I was little," he said. "It might sound corny. But I've always been given good opportunities by my country and I wanted to give back.
"And it turned out I love to do it, so it worked out really well," he said.
Nickerson said his squad would always have a mine detector with them to help find the underground explosives, so that a team, specially trained to do so, could remove them safely.
He said they found a lot, but were always aware there were so many more still hidden.
Don Nickerson said his son is the first in the family to serve in the military.
"I'm very proud of him," he said. "He's doing his duty, he believes in it and we stand behind him. You worry about him every day. I'm sure my wife has been losing a lot of sleep over it.
"But the VFW and their women's auxiliary have been a big help," he said. He said he and his wife got involved with the VFW after their son was deployed in May.
He said the VFW members are parents of other active duty military members who they are able to talk to, as well as veterans who can share their own experiences.
Friends in the Point Borough fire department have a welcome sign out for Nickerson at the fire house on Beaver Dam Road.
It's a long way from Afghanistan, where the 120 degree heat has lessened to about 99, where the ruts and grooves in the dirt roads make it hard to walk, even when nothing's exploding, where there was only access to fresh supplies and Internet access every few weeks, but where Nickerson felt needed like never before.
When Barbara Nickerson, his mother, is asked about how she feels about her son possibly returning to Afghanistan, she says, "Well, a lot can happen between now and next year. But he signed on as a Marine. So we have to support him."