Citizen-soldiers five years later

Published 2:09 pm Friday, October 8, 2010

Five years ago this week, I was in Iraq in a dirty, foreboding piece of real estate known as “The Triangle of Death.” That is not a misnomer. I almost found out the hard way.

I had been invited by Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver, commanding officer of Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. The general gave me free rein to go out with the troops and see the war up-close and personal (and write about it) and I did.

I also had the opportunity to observe the leadership style of Stewart Rodeheaver. As I wrote at the time, he was “equal parts warrior, diplomat and counselor” and excellent at all three.

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One minute he was in meetings with the Iraqi military planning security for the upcoming elections on a new constitution for the country. Then off to meet with a group of tribal chiefs, known as sheiks, who had been cut out of power by Saddam Hussein and were now intending to be a part of any political discussion about Iraq.

He quipped that dealing with the egocentric sheiks was like dealing with a bunch of county commissioners—in another life, the general had been a regional economic development manager at Georgia Power—only the sheiks were armed.

But confronting the enemy was always Job One. The bad guys were extremely difficult to tell from the good guys in a hellhole like Iraq. Life is not worth a lot to the terrorists—theirs or ours. Every day that the troops left their compound they were in imminent danger. Even Camp Striker, the 48th’s home base, was subject to frequent mortar attacks. It was a harrowing experience.

I caught up with Rodeheaver last week by telephone. He retired in March 2009, and is living on Lake Sinclair, near Eatonton. He remains active consulting with Army intelligence officials regarding the kind of information ground commanders need to do their job and to protect their troops. He would know.

He is also working on a new teaching technique, involving 3-D technology. It has been used in Department of Defense with success and Rodeheaver thinks it has tremendous potential in the classroom but isn’t ready to talk about that part yet.

I asked him how long it took him to get adjusted to a normal life after Iraq.

“It takes a while,” he said, “Every minute in Iraq was dangerous, so when you get home and see people walking toward you, your first reaction is ‘Threat or no threat?’ It is a normal reaction.”

And the most obvious question: Was it worth it for us to be in Iraq?

“The changes I saw take place were historical,” he said. “It was amazing to see 75,000 people vote for a new constitution, a brand new experience for them.”

I recall that some Iraqis walked over 20 miles just to vote. Remember that on Nov. 2 when you are trying to decide if the right to vote is a sacred privilege.

And despite what you read in the media to the contrary, Iraq is a much less dangerous place than when I visited. Rodeheaver says violent incidents are down from a hundred a day to about five a week. Still dangerous, but much better.

The general says it was time to pull out of Iraq and to let the people make their own decisions.

“Because of their history and tradition,” he says, “I doubt they will ever have a democracy like ours but if they can get their economy functioning, they will have a much better life than they have had. I am optimistic for them.”

I reminded him about the morning the Humvee in which I was riding struck a roadside bomb. Had the bad guys been a tad faster or our vehicle a little slower, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. I have a photograph of the bomb hole to remind me that war is real.

The 48 BCT experienced that kind of terror on a daily basis. Twenty-six members lost their lives in Iraq, most of them to IEDs.

It has been five years since I was there, but I think often of the brave men and women of Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team who put their lives on the line for us daily in a God-forsaken part of the world. They are citizen-soldiers in the best sense of the word as is the man who commanded them, Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver.

God bless them, one and all.