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Visiting troops in Iraq should be eye-opening

I am headed to Iraq to visit the Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade Combat Team, a group of about 4,800 citizen-soldiers who have given more than their fair share for you and me over the past several years. Many of them are your neighbors, friends, co-workers and loved ones. All of them are heroes.

I will be in Iraq for 10 days, which is no great sacrifice on my part. The 48th has been there a long time and will still be there when I return to the safety of home and hearth. And I am coming back. My family has made that a nonnegotiable condition for approving the trip.

I am anxious to meet my fellow Georgians who have left their jobs and their families, and who have put their nation's interests above their own self-interests - a rare occurrence these days. President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." He could have been talking about the 48th Brigade Combat Team.

Lt. Col. Ken Baldowski, public affairs officer for the Georgia National Guard, has been forthright in what to expect in Iraq. For one thing, this is a real war, not some game, and in real wars people can get hurt, including me. While the 48th Brigade Combat Team is glad to have me visit, they do not run a baby-sitting service. If I want to go somewhere and the troops say "no," that is that. They don't have time to look out for amateurs when their own lives are at stake. I don't blame them. Having said that, I have told officials that I don't intend to hang around the pressroom all day and pretend I have witnessed the war. That would be dishonest on my part and a disservice to you.

Baldowski has said the temperatures will be well over 100 degrees during the day, and that I had better be in good physical condition and well hydrated. Having been to Honduras recently should help, except while there, I didn't have to wear a helmet and body armor. The only danger I faced in Casa Quemada was the possibility of falling into a newly dug latrine. To get in shape, I have been walking long distances with my friend, former Delta pilot and Vietnam veteran Joe Bartenfeld. Joe is loaning me his captain's bars for good luck. They got him home safely from Vietnam, and I intend for them to get me home, too. When I arrive, I am going to tell the men and women of the 48th that I am there as your representative, to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what their days and nights are like, what they miss most about home, how they occupy their free time, what it is like to stare at death on a daily basis and about their relationship with the local Iraqis - which I suspect is a lot better than many of the media would have you believe.

Speaking of the media, it will be interesting to see what the soldiers think of the media coverage of the war, and if they believe it emboldens the enemy and puts their lives at even more risk. I think it does. They must wonder why the media say so little about the potential for bringing democracy to the Middle East and giving Iraqis a chance to enjoy the same freedoms we do. It has happened throughout Eastern Europe, and it could happen in the Middle East. If it does, it won't be because of The New York Times and The Washington Post; it will be because of the sacrifices of people like the unsung citizen-soldiers of the 48th brigade.

It's time to go. I have packed my passport and my sunscreen, gotten shots in every conceivable part of my body except my toenails and hugged my family and friends. It should be quite an experience and one that I intend to share with you to the best of my abilities. Let's roll.

Contact Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139. Visit his Web site at www.dickyarbrough.com . His column appears on Thursday.