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06/14/07 7:37 PM ET

Bucs a family affair for local soldier

Team pays tribute to the Army on Flag Day

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have always been a big part of Sgt. William Hinkle's family life. He grew up in Bridgeport, W.Va., and grew close to his grandfather watching Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and other Pirates greats.

Hinkle was one of 800 Army soldiers and their families who attended Thursday's game at PNC Park as part of the Army's celebration of its 232nd birthday and Flag Day.

Making the trek to Three Rivers Stadium for a day game with his grandfather and brother was something Hinkle looked forward to every summer. He said the days spent catching a game under the sun strengthened his relationship with his grandfather.

"That brought us closer to our grandparents," Hinkle said. "If it weren't for stuff like that, I probably wouldn't talk to them like I do now."

But those childhood moments ended after he graduated high school. Hinkle decided to join the Army and was stationed in North Carolina for four years before spending 2003 fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Hinkle said going to Afghanistan was important to him because he wanted to take an active role in protecting America and fighting al-Qaida to help prevent terrorist attacks.

"You're doing your job, you're doing what you signed up to do," Hinkle said. "And it gives you the sense of pride that you're out there defending your country, especially in that time of life."

Hinkle was an artilleryman in Afghanistan, where his main job was to support the infantry from behind as well as search villages for insurgents and al-Qaida operatives.

He was able to keep in contact with his family through e-mail access and a weekly phone call, but he missed things from home. Keeping up with now-minor things such as the Pirates' season were not important. He used his limited communications to find out how everyone in his family was doing and telling them about his experiences.

"[The Pirates' season] wasn't the furthest thing from my mind," Hinkle said. "The welfare of myself and my family comes first, of course. ... That was the furthest thing from my mom's mind, she was just checking up on me to see how I was."

When he returned to America, Hinkle was eventually transferred to the Pittsburgh area, where he is currently working as a recruiter. The new location is great for him because he is close to his home and able to keep up with the Pittsburgh sports scene. He went to seven Bucs games last season and has been to several this year.

More importantly, his family grew. He met his wife of 2 1/2 years, Natalie, shortly after returning to America, and the couple are expecting their first child.

Hinkle is expecting to be transferred back to North Carolina again in January, but he is looking forward to making the trek to PNC Park to bond with his child just like he bonded with his grandfather at Three Rivers Stadium.

"I've already got plans to take a long weekend and drive up here and go to a couple games once the season starts," Hinkle said. "It brings your family closer; it gives you something to do together."

Jeremy Anders is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.