We first learned about contractor James Boyers when he sent us an e-mail asking for any business books to take along on a long trip -- to Afghanistan to fly Apache helicopters for the North Carolina National Guard.

"I will have a lot of time when I'm not flying and want to read to improve my business sense," he wrote. "I have my master plumbing license and now would like to read more on running a business and operating one to be successful. Once I get my correct mailing address in Afghanistan, I'll look forward to receiving PM over there."

We sent him our recommendations, and also conducted an e-mail interview, too. At the time, James was preparing for his mission at Ft. Hood, which is near Killeen, Texas, and going back to his South Carolina home whenever he could get leave.

By the time you read this, James will have left behind his wife, his young daughter and baby son, and the family plumbing business to serve the military until the beginning of next year.

How did a plumbing contractor end up flying Apaches in Afghanistan?

I began my military career when I joined the regular Army in 1986. I spent three years working on helicopters. When my enlistment was up, I transferred to the North Carolina National Guard as a mechanic. I also went back to school to get a degree in criminal justice.

While I did want to work in law enforcement, I also always wanted to learn to fly. Which is exactly what I got the chance to do in 1994 when the Guard sent me to flight school.

Since flight school is a year long, I had to drop out of college. I initially trained in the Bell Jet Ranger, which would be the type of helicopter you typically see TV news crews flying.

Afterward, I trained for another 12 weeks to learn to fly the Apache, an attack helicopter. The main mission of an Apache is to destroy tanks. To do that, the aircraft is capable of firing up to 16 laser-designated Hellfire missiles or 76 Hydra 70 rockets. It is also armed with a 30mm cannon capable of firing 1,200 rounds.

I never did get my law enforcement degree, but I've been in the military for 17 years and my rank is chief warrant officer.

What are your specific duties on board?

I fly in the CPG (co-pilot gunner) station of the Apache. The Apache is a tandem-seat helicopter, meaning the two pilots sit in-line with each other. We are separated by glass from one another.

In a typical mission once the aircraft arrives in a "battle position," the front-seat pilot does most of the firing while the back-seat pilot flies the helicopter. However, rockets are normally fired in a cooperative mode by both pilots. And both pilots can either fly or shoot.

I'm a "front-seater" right now. I prefer to fly in the front seat because in a battle position, the front-seater is the one doing the majority of work and things happen very fast.

Tell us what your typical day is like at Ft. Hood?

On this current deployment, our normal day begins at 6 a.m. We start with physical exercise, which usually means running a couple of miles. By 8 a.m., we are on the flight line planning a mission or sitting in on blocks of classroom instruction.

Most missions entail flying at night. The Apache is equipped with a night vision system that uses infrared sensors allowing the pilots to see into the night. We also use night vision goggles, which employ light amplification techniques.

What will you be doing once you get to Afghanistan?

I am not at liberty to say what our exact mission will be. Generally speaking, we will be involved in providing close air support and armed escorts throughout the country.

What got you started in the plumbing business?

In 1998, I was called into active duty for a tour in Kuwait. At that time, I was working at the corporate headquarters of a big company that has operations all over the Southeast.

My employer didn't like the idea of my being gone for a whole year so I ended up talking to my father-in-law, who owned a plumbing business.

He invited me to learn the business from him, and we agreed that one day he would pass the reigns to me. I couldn't have asked for a better deal than that.

When I got back from Kuwait in March of 1999, my family and I moved to North Myrtle Beach, S.C., where I started to learn the business. After two years of apprenticeship with my father-in-law, I was able to sit for my master plumbing license. I am proud to say that I passed it on the first try. I received my backflow certification soon after that.

Tell us about the family plumbing business.

My father-in-law, Wayne James, founded James Plumbing in 1967 along with his wife, Linda. Wayne did all the plumbing while Linda ran the back office.

Today, we have seven full-time plumbers, including me and Wayne. Linda continues running the office full-time. Being a small company we pride ourselves in quality work. We engage in many types of commercial plumbing, including new construction, service work, backflow inspections and remodeling.

There's not much that our guys can't do.

Judging from your original e-mail, you sound like not only a big reader, but also someone who's dedicated to improving their business skills. What would you recommend to others for improving their business?

"Read as much as you can," my father used to tell me. "There's nothing you can't do if you can read about it first." I try to read as much about the industry as I can, and also talk with people who have the experience. And I try to take any kinds of continuing education I can find the time for.

I believe if you ever feel "you know it all" in either the plumbing or aviation field, it's time for you to retire. You can never stop learning.

How has your experience in the military helped you in running a plumbing business?

I have a level of discipline that most of my peers are lacking. The military has taught me to better manage my time by setting goals and executing against the requirement.

What about the family you're leaving behind?

I have a beautiful wife, Tawanna, a 4-year-old girl, Anna-Austin, and a 6-month-old baby boy, Anderson. When I was called to active duty in January of this year my little boy was only 2 months old. In 1998 when I went to Kuwait for six months my little girl was a just 2 weeks old. The hardest part of being called up isn't the mission, but rather leaving the family.

How's the plumbing business fairing while you're away?

My father-in-law is still running the business. It is difficult not being able to provide assistance in any way. Because my primary responsibilities were in new construction and backflow inspections, we have had to hire replacements.

This problem is compounded by the fact that we are continuing to grow. And, of course, the summer season, when we are extremely busy, will only exacerbate the issues caused by my absence. The bottom line: I have a commitment to the United States, and I believe in fulfilling my obligation.

You can e-mail James Boyers atjames.boyers@us.army.mil.