What a difference a decade makes.
Ten years ago this week I was at Camp Striker in Iraq, reporting on the men and women of Georgia's 48th Brigade Combat team, under the command of a great American and Monroe County native, Brig. Gen. Stewart Rodeheaver.
Why I made the decision to go to Iraq is still a bit puzzling. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Obviously, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As I was to find out, there wasn't a safe piece of real estate in the whole Saddam Hussein-forsaken place.
I had been informed by some of my media friends that the trip would be a waste of my time. The military's public information people would make sure that where I went and what I saw would be monitored and managed. That was not the case. Gen. Rodeheaver assured me that I would have the freedom to go where I wished and see what I wanted. He was true to his word.
Therefore, on my fourth day in Iraq, I decided to ride with a convoy in an expanse known as the Triangle of Death - so called because of the terrorist activity in the area between the cities of Mahmudiayah, Yusifiyah and Latifiyah - to look for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices.)
Locating IEDs was a deadly cat-and-mouse game - only it was no game. The bad guys would place an IED in a soda can or a paper sack or a hole where a bomb had been previously placed. On occasions, they would put one in an easy-to-discover spot and then secretly videotape the demolition squad as they disarmed the bomb in order to find out how they did it and where each person was located during the process for future reference.
Our convoy consisted of four Humvees and a 27-ton armored vehicle called the Buffalo, which probed for suspected IEDs. Before we left that morning, it was suggested that I not ride in the lead vehicle, which was most likely to draw fire. Playing combat reporter to the hilt, I insisted that I be in the first Humvee. I should have listened to the experts.
We left Camp Striker and proceeded onto a pockmarked stretch of asphalt known as "Tampa Highway." It also was called "The Most Dangerous Highway in the World." No argument from me. Twenty minutes later an IED detonated under my side of our Humvee.
Sgt. Eric Farmborough, from Statesboro and the tactical coordinator in our vehicle, said later it looked like the equivalent of a couple of 155 mm shells had exploded. I have no idea what that meant but I took his word for it. All I know is that the explosion lifted up the backend of our Humvee under my seat, made a sound I will never forget and scared the willies out of me.
Lest I be accused of pulling a Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who admitted to overstating his experiences in Iraq, I had the presence of mind to get one of the crew to photograph the crater on our return to camp. Today, that photograph hangs in my home as a reminder of how fortunate I am to be here to tell you the story. And, yes, it is still a big hole.
To the crew I was with, however, it was just another day at the office. Indeed, before this explosion, the 27 men in their battalion had experienced at least five other similar explosions out of the 25 or so IEDs they had located in the previous four months. Dodging an IED was business as usual for the 48th BCT; an everyday and potentially fatal occurrence. Eight members of the brigade had been killed by IEDs in the two months before I arrived.
Other than Gen. Rodeheaver, now retired and living in Eatonton, where he is president of Vizitech USA, a high-tech training and education company, I have lost contact with the others I met and wrote about 10 years ago. They came to Iraq as true citizen-soldiers: truck drivers and school teachers, doctors and nurses, prison guards and welders. They hailed from Demorest and Dublin, Rincon and Palmetto, Macon and Montezuma and a lot of places in between. Unsung heroes, one and all. They may not remember me, but I will never forget them. They were and are a special group of Georgians.
One footnote: My family met me at the airport on my return from Iraq. I was a bit bedraggled. Going to baggage claim, my then-18-year-old grandson, Brian, put his arm around my shoulder and said quietly, "Pa, don't ever do that again." I haven't. But I am glad I did.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org, at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.