It is hard to put into words the stress one feels leaving the relative safety of Camp Striker and heading out into the mean streets of Iraq. I did it for eight days. The troops of the 48th do it every day of the week. They tell me that the most important thing they must remember when they leave on patrol is to not get complacent. Every bomb crater on every road must be examined every time. Check out a crater on 14 missions and forget on the 15th, and you might be killed. The terrorists count on us getting complacent.
I am still trying to fathom the bomb explosion that rocked our Humvee on a mission into the notorious Triangle of Death. It was a surreal experience. Had our convoy been a few seconds slower, or the bomber a few seconds faster, it could have been fatal. I have a picture of the crater that was created by the explosion. From the size of it, it makes me wonder why we weren't blown to smithereens. As a soldier said later, it wasn't our day to be killed.
I find myself wondering about the people who planted the roadside bomb and why they did it. Do they believe in a cause, or are they just trying to make some money to feed their family? Was their family being held hostage by terrorists, and were the family members killed because they failed to kill us? How old were the bombers? Had they done this before? Do they care about life at all? Alas, we will never know.
A number of soldiers asked me to call their loved ones when I got home and let them know they were safe and anxious to come home themselves. I am probably violating some professional journalistic canon that says journalists aren't supposed to get involved personally with the troops. If so, those who propound that canon can place it where the sun doesn't shine. I am calling everybody on the list as quickly as possible.
E-mail is a marvelous invention. By the time I got home from Iraq, I already had mail from a number of the soldiers I had met and from their families who had read about them. Some of the e-mail came from as far away as Canada. A couple of letter writers took umbrage at my saying that the 48th was not composed of professional soldiers and thought I meant they weren't good at what they do. I meant they were not regular Army. The Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade comprises citizen-soldiers who left their jobs to go fight in Iraq. They are true professionals in every sense of the word. Maybe I should explain myself better in the future.
I talked to a number of women in the 48th. They make up less than 10 percent of the brigade, but they work just as hard as the men. The women tell me that they are accepted as equals, although one told me she feels like she has "500 big brothers." Ask them what they miss most about home, and they are unanimous: flush toilets. I think I should leave that one right where it is.
For the men, the thing they seem to miss most - besides their families - is grass. There is nothing green around Camp Striker, except the occasional syndicated columnist who can't figure out how to put on helmets and earphones. The place is pure dirt and dust. One soldier told me he would never again complain about cutting the grass at home.
While the men and women of the 48th appreciate the cookies and candy, I get the feeling that they would like to get letters of support from back home, too. It would be neat if the troops heard from schoolchildren occasionally. (Hint, Hint.)
Finally, I will always remember coming up the escalator at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and seeing my beloved family awaiting me. I pray every member of the 48th has that same experience - and soon.
Contact Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139. Visit his Web site at www.dickyarbrough.com .