Remembering a visit to Iraq with Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team
Eighteen years ago this week, I ventured off to Iraq to report on the brave men and women of Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team, located in an accurately- named area of the country called the Triangle of Death. It is thought that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in that general area. If so, Adam and Eve were lucky to get out when they did. The serpent, too. It was not an ideal place to raise kids or apple trees.
I got to Iraq via the suggestion of my friend Bill Stewart in Brunswick. Stewart, who had been chief of staff to Georgia U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, suggested to a former aide that it might be good to invite me over to see first-hand what was going on in Iraq. That former aide was now Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver, a great American.
My media friends told me that the trip would not be worth the effort, that I would confined to a safe area called the Green Zone, and watched over by the public information people. I expressed those concerns in an email to Gen. Rodeheaver, who assured me that would not be the case. And it was not.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I got there, but what I discovered is the place was dirty and dangerous. There wasn’t much vegetation but a lot of sand and wind. Also, unlike wars in the past, the enemy was not necessarily facing you. In Iraq, the bad guys could be in front, in back or on both sides. They were no safe havens. As the famed arsonist William Tecumseh Sherman once observed, “War is hell.” So was Iraq.
I also discovered an extraordinary group of Georgians, 4,600 citizen-soldiers who had left their homes, families and jobs and were now stationed in a miserable part of the world. Unlike regular military for whom soldiering is a full-time job, the men and women of the 48th BCT were members of the Georgia National Guard. Back home, they were schoolteachers, mechanics, prison guards, truck drivers, postal employees. You name it. In Iraq, they were soldiers, first and foremost.
Not only did they risk their lives daily trying to avoid IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), which could be detonated in something as simple as a soda can, as well as getting shot at and shooting back, the 48th BCT unit also helped in the construction and repair of bridges and sewer systems, utilities and operating a much-needed medical clinic as well as teaching job skills to the locals.
I saw the war a bit too up-closeand- personal while on patrol with members of the 648th Engineering Battalion out of Statesboro 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. We found one. Under the Humvee in which I was seated. A couple of bad guys exploded an IED as we were crossing a bridge near our home base of Camp Striker. Had our vehicle been going a few seconds slower or had the bad guys been a little faster on the draw, someone else might be occupying this weekly space, not me. We later took a picture of the crater — about the size of a kitchen table — which I keep in my office as a reminder that war is not an abstraction. War is hell. People die.
It has been 18 years since that memorable journey to Iraq. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver is retired, lives in Eatonton and runs Vizitech USA, a digital education and training company. We still correspond on occasion. John King, a former commander of the 48th Brigade Combat Team, is now Georgia’s Insurance Commissioner. Then Lt. Col. and later Major Gen. Tom Carden is the Adjutant General of Georgia, which oversees the Army and Air National Guards in the state.
But there were others I wrote about: Dr. John Vogel, of Atlanta, and medic Angela Gowen, from Palmetto; Sgt. Eric Farmborough, of Statesboro; Staff Sgt. Britt Smith, of Dublin; Shaun Todd, from Claxton; Sgt. Bruce Robinson, from Buena Vista; Gary Thurman, from Winder; Sgt. James Rackley, of Montezuma; Bill Huffman, from Gray and so many more. I don’t know where they are today. I hope they are well. They likely won’t remember me in the brief time I spent with them in that hellhole called Iraq, but I will never forget them. Heroes are hard to forget.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.