It seems like a lifetime ago and in some ways it was. It has been 17 years this week since I was in Iraq with the men and women of Georgia's 48th Brigade Combat Team. Even today, it is an experience seared in my brain.
How I ended up there was due to my friend, Bill Stewart, of Brunswick. A former chief of staff to Georgia's U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, Stewart suggested to a one-time staff member of his that he should invite me to Iraq for a visit. That staff member happened to be the now-Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver, commander of the 48th BCT.
Much to my surprise, I got an email from Gen. Rodeheaver shortly thereafter and an invitation to come over and see things for myself. Sharing the invitation with some of my media colleagues, I was advised to turn it down. I was told that public information staff would keep tight reins on me and I would see only what they wanted me to see within the Green Zone, a relatively safe area (if there was such a thing) in that war torn region.
That prompted me to email the general back and say in effect if that was the case, I would pass on the opportunity. I did not intend to hang around the pressroom all day and pretend I had witnessed the war. I received assurance from him that I was free to go wherever I wished and without any handlers. Gen. Rodeheaver was true to his word, although I suspect had I pushed the limit too far, he would have changed the rules quickly. Generals can do that kind of thing, you know.
I did see the war up-close and personal and a bit too up-close for comfort. I wangled an invitation to join a convoy of Humvees as they swept through the notorious Triangle of Death - so called because of the terrorist activity in the area between the cities of Mahmudiayah, Yusifiyah and Lucafiyah - looking for IEDs. That is military jargon for Improvised Explosive Devices or simply, bombs.
We found one. Right under the Humvee in which I was riding. The IED detonated on my side of the vehicle and just behind me. Sparks, smoke and asphalt were everywhere. Had we been going a few seconds slower or had the bad guys been a little faster on the draw, we might not be having this conversation.
Viewing the scene upon our return from the mission, it was amazing to see how large a crater the bomb had made in the road. I still have the photograph of the incident to remind me that war is real and people do get killed. We were lucky that day and may I never forget it.
The 48th Brigade Combat Team is a part of the Georgia National Guard, a group of citizen-soldiers from across the state who leave jobs and families to serve their country. In this case, in Iraq. Lt. Col. Tom Carden gave me a succinct description of their duties there. "What we do is find out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys," he said, "and then we get rid of the bad guys." Today, Maj. Gen. Carden is Adjutant General of the Georgia Department of Defense.
At the same time they were fighting the omnipresent terrorists, members of the 48th BCT were employing their back-home skills helping construct bridges, repairing dams, installing power lines, running medical clinics and showing the best of us to a people who had known only the brutality of a despicable dictator.
Today, I wonder what has become of this special group of people. I do know that in addition to Gen. Carden, Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver is retired and living in Eatonton. I still correspond with him on occasion. Colonel and later Major General John King is Georgia's able Insurance Commissioner, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and currently running for a full term in office.
But there are all the others with whom I spent perilous days and nights that I don't know about. They hailed from across our state: Places like Statesboro and Montezuma, Palmetto and Gray, Dublin and Brunswick. Back home they were mechanics, firefighters, schoolteachers, postal workers, doctors, nurses, correctional officers, police officers and the like. Your friends and neighbors.
But for my short stay in Iraq, they were my Band of Brothers and Sisters. Seventeen years later, they are still my heroes. I hope they are well.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com; mail to: Dick Yarbrough, P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.
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