National Guard December 2011 : Page 34

G uard r oots : I raq Reflections at Dusk By Bob Haskell The end of Operation New Dawn has many Guardsmen thinking about earlier days in the Iraq war and their contributions to the fight any americans may wonder why this country went to war in iraq. The threat of weapons of mass destruc-tion? To overthrow saddam Hussein’s repressive regime? To bring democracy to that distant land? To protect the interests of Big Oil? That’s a subject that politicians, historians and aca-demics have discussed for nearly a decade and will continue to deliberate long after all U.s. troops are withdrawn by the end of this month. it was of little or no concern to members of the national Guard who went to iraq once or twice or even more times during the nearly nine years that U.s. forces have served there during operations iraqi Freedom and, more recently, new Dawn. M 34 | National Guard

Reflections At Dusk

Bob Haskell

The end of Operation New Dawn M has many Guardsmen thinking about earlier days in the Iraq war and their contributions to the fight<br /> <br /> Any americans may wonder why this country went to war in iraq.<br /> <br /> The threat of weapons of mass destruction? To overthrow saddam Hussein’s repressive regime? To bring democracy to that distant land? To protect the interests of Big Oil?<br /> <br /> That’s a subject that politicians, historians and academics have discussed for nearly a decade and will continue to deliberate long after all U.s. troops are withdrawn by the end of this month.<br /> <br /> It was of little or no concern to members of the national Guard who went to iraq once or twice or even more times during the nearly nine years that U.s. forces have served there during operations iraqi Freedom and, more recently, new Dawn.<br /> <br /> “We were given a mission, and we were going to tackle and accomplish that mission successfully, as we would any mission,” says maj. Gen. Kevin mcBride, the rhode island adjutant general, who commanded up to 5,000 troops in iraq six years ago. “i walked among heroes every single day, and i look back at that as a highlight of my career.” <br /> <br /> Guardsmen have served continuously in iraq from the get-go. Florida army Guard spc. Jeffrey Wershow stood guard as a dirt berm was breached on the Jordanian border early in the morning of march 19, 2003, when the invasion began, so special Forces troops could enter iraq.<br /> <br /> Wershow planted the U.s. and Florida state flags on the berm so the troops would know the Guard was there.<br /> <br /> More than 9,300 army and air Guardsmen were still serving in iraq on Oct. 24, three days after President Barack Obama announced all U.s. troops there would “be home for the holidays.” <br /> <br /> According to the national Guard Bureau, 286,531 Guard personnel have served from a few months to one or more years during iraqi Freedom and new Dawn, which began aug. 31, 2010, when Obama declared the end to combat operations in iraq.<br /> <br /> Nearly 53,200 army Guard troops were in iraq in 2005, its peak, when the Guard provided eight of the 15 army maneuver brigades, nGB reports. The air Guard’s peak year was 2007 when 4,504 airmen took part.<br /> <br /> Guardsmen labored in biting cold and sweltering heat and endured the blowing sand alongside active-component comrades. Any animosity between active and Guard troops largely evaporated.<br /> <br /> In fact, one active-component army officer specifically asked for members of the massachusetts army Guard’s 704th Quartermaster Detachment to operate the water purification site at his forward operating base.<br /> <br /> “That let the active-duty people know that the Guard is not a bunch of weekend warriors. That bias is gone,” says maj. Patrick crowley, who commanded the detachment in iraq in 2004 and 2005.<br /> <br /> Guardsmen are convinced that they made a difference.<br /> <br /> “I know for a fact that we’re handing that country over in a better condition today,” says mcBride, who commanded the 43rd military Police Brigade that served in iraq from October 2005 to september 2006.<br /> <br /> “We’ve supported the country in democratic elections. We’ve supported the development of their government,” mcBride adds. “We certainly hope and pray that all of the [service members] who gave their lives for that mission will be appreciated by the iraqi people as they move in to take control and govern themselves once again.” <br /> <br /> “I suppose things could deteriorate in the country after we leave,” says rhode island air Guard staff sgt. Kenneth cormier, who deployed to al asad air Base in 2006 and again in 2010. “But it’s good our troops don’t have to be there.”<br /> <br /> No ReseRvatioNs <br /> <br /> Guardsmen today belong to a new generation that was not the least bit surprised that they were being sent to war. Some of them actually wanted to go.<br /> <br /> “it’s about my family’s history,” says massachusetts army Guard sgt. Christopher mills, who operated computer and radio systems in iraq for a year beginning in november 2004. “my uncles were in Vietnam. Both of my grandfathers were in World War ii. My father was in the massachusetts army Guard for 28 years, even though he never deployed. It was just my turn.” <br /> <br /> Others were not so eager.<br /> <br /> “Going to iraq was not high on my list of things i wanted to do,” explains rhode island army Guard staff sgt. Zachary Davis, an mP who nonetheless went twice—in may 2003 and again in 2007.<br /> <br /> None of them, however, expressed reservations or resentments that U.s. forces may have originally been sent to iraq under false pretenses. As it turned out, reports that iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction proved to be unfounded.<br /> <br /> “As a soldier, when you’re there, the last thing you think about is the reasons why you’re there,” says Davis. “you’re thinking about yourself, and the guys you’re fighting with, and coming home. That’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We can’t choose our wars. They’re given to us.” <br /> <br /> “We are not politicians. We can’t worry about the things we can’t change.” says massachusetts army Guard 2nd Lt. caroline muriama, who went to iraq twice as an enlisted soldier. “This is our job and we just do it.” <br /> <br /> “It let me honor my commitment to the government,” says retired south Dakota air Guard Lt. col. Richard reid, a civil-engineer professor who had put 20 years into the air Force and Guard before being sent to iraq immediately after the invasion. “The air Force had paid for my education, including my master’s and doctoral degrees. I felt Privileged to make good on my end of the bargain.” <br /> <br /> Guardsmen accumulated war stories to long remember.<br /> <br /> McBride’s command, which was responsible for five detention installations spread across iraq, was instrumental in shutting down the abu Ghraib prison before it was turned over to the iraqis in early september 2006, more than two years after it gained notoriety for prisoner abuse and torture under an earlier army command.<br /> <br /> “My most memorable moment was standing on the ramp at the Baghdad international airport at 3 in the morning when the last aircraft landed with the final detainee out of abu Ghraib, knowing we had gone through the complete closure there,” mcBride says.<br /> <br /> Reid, a member of the south Dakota 114th Fighter Wing’s civil engineering squadron that had arrived at Tallil air Base in mid-april 2003, was sent to Baghdad to design a base for 1,100 people at the international airport that coalition forces had just captured.<br /> <br /> “We just worked and slept. Sometimes we ate an mre a day. Sometimes we forgot to eat,” he recalls. “it was the hardest thing i have ever done. It was the most rewarding thing i ever did in the air Force.” <br /> <br /> Michigan air Guard maj. Len isabelle went to Kirkuk in march 2004 as part of the 107th Fighter squadron that was the first air Force F-16 outfit to be based in iraq. Those air Guard planes were equipped with Theater airborne reconnaissance systems that could provide good ground photos to intelligence personnel.<br /> <br /> “We flew close-air support missions day and night during the first battle of Fallujah,” recalls isabelle, now a colonel. “The ground guys knew our call sign, THUD. They liked our planes because we had so much experience.” <br /> <br /> Davis faced warfare in Fallujah as part of rhode island’s 115th military Police company.<br /> <br /> “I was in the turret returning fire,” says Davis, whose squad was ambushed while rushing to back up another squad. “We didn’t spend a long time in the fatal funnel, but it sure felt like it.” <br /> <br /> The deaths of three rhode island comrades hit him hard. An improvised explosive device killed two of them. A close friend, spc. Michael andrade, was killed when a fuel truck hit his vehicle in blowing sand.<br /> <br /> “That was rough,” says Davis. “That could have happened here in rhode island. It didn’t have to happen over there.” <br /> <br /> All told, 503 Guardsmen have been killed in iraq because of hostile actions and nonhostile incidents, and another 4,093 have been wounded in action, according to the nGB’s most current tallies. The honored dead include Wershow, who was killed point-blank by a lone gunman at Baghdad University on July 6, 2003, and Wisconsin army Guard spc. Michelle Witmer, who became the first Guard woman ever killed in combat april 9, 2004.<br /> <br /> Two of the darkest days were Jan. 6, 2005, when seven soldiers in the Louisiana army Guard’s 256th infantry Brigade were killed by a roadside bomb that destroyed their Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and Jan. 20, 2007, when 10 Guard soldiers from five states and the U.s. Virgin islands died when their helicopter was shot down.<br /> <br /> Both sides of the WaR <br /> <br /> Rhode island army Guard maj. Mark Bourgery had two perspectives of the war during his two tours. It was heavy on ground combat operations the first time he served with the 1st Battalion, 103rd Field artillery, in 2004 and 2005.<br /> <br /> “There were rocket and mortar attacks continuously,” he recalls.<br /> <br /> It was more focused on civil operations in 2007 and 2008.<br /> <br /> Bourgery commanded charlie Battery, which was responsible for a school at Victory Base near Baghdad that was set up for 600 children of detainees. Transporting 200 of the students to and from class each day and providing security for the school and its 120-member staff was the main mission.<br /> <br /> It may not have been the most exciting assignment, Bourgery notes, but improving the students’ attendance rate from 15 to 92 percent gave him a lot of satisfaction.<br /> <br /> “I feel very privileged to have delivered an opportunity for schooling to a society that would not have had it otherwise,” Bourgery explains. “i was part of something i would never have experienced without the national Guard.” <br /> <br /> Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted via magazine@ngaus.org.

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