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Posted on Jun 25, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Red Bulls in Iraq – Pt. 4: Memorial Day memories from Iraq

By Cpt. Fernando A Franco

The days at our base are now becoming just one continuous stream of time. The soldiers check their weapons, body armor, and the rest of their equipment to make sure it is ready for when the moment arrives, a moment we do not want to arrive. Before becoming an officer I spent several years of my military carrier as an enlisted soldier, which gave me a valued experience, the view of the enlisted soldier, which years later have became the most valuable tool for me to do my job. I am a firm believer that the backbone of the US Army is the Non Commissioner Officer (NCO) Corps, and I have had the opportunity to work with the greatest NCOs, but in this deployment I have met one of the best NCOs I have ever worked with. He is my Battle NCO (fancy army name for my right hand man) SFC Troy Smith.

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I did not meet him until the day I was told he was going to be working with me, nine months ago at Camp Shelby, MS, I did not have the chance to talk to him before starting to work, we just started working. Those who have been in the army may relate to me on this: usually the army gets a bunch of soldiers together and tell them to start working, no much time for introductions or get to know each other, which will come later. That is how I came to work with him.

By writing about my Battle NCO, I want to honor all the enlisted soldiers that are the backbone of the army, those enlisted soldiers that support us officers. I want to invite you to read an insert from SFC Smith’s website (www.justicesoldier.com) for memorial day, and what it was for us the soldiers, to celebrate a family holiday away from our families but close to our band of brothers here in Iraq.

This is what he wrote: “….Well, Memorial Day has recently past, and all across my home town people were out to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. It was actually hard to call the family cabin that day, to talk to everyone and then hear in the background those all too familiar sounds that define my summer weekends…. but here things go into a sort of autopilot that can only be compared to living the Bill Murray movie Ground Hog’s Day – you do the same thing, at the same time, everyday. Actually, it is funny for those that know me because I am NOT that type of person at all back home. But here, it is a strict routine. Please do not think this is a complaint, I am doing fine and will explain more soon. Yet, knowing that everyone was partying without me and having such a good time in 88 degree weather on Memorial Day was a little tough. Maybe just because I know it will probably be 20 years until my area has that kind of weather again!

Meanwhile, back in Iraq……. Memorial Day weekend was marked by HOT weather, subtle ceremonial marks and an actual “quiet” stretch in our sector here in Iraq – respective to the fact that this is, well, a war in Iraq. So, the big ticket item of the weekend was a free concert by none other than Toby Keith- great show despite that the 8pm start time was marked by an enemy mortar attempt (usual bad aim) and temperatures well over 100 degrees at that time of night. Oh, what one would give for a cool ocean breeze.

The concert was great as you might assume with his patriotic songs and lifestyle. I was making a sandwich across from him in the DFAC (Dining Facility) the night before the concert, and I was contemplating knocking his tongs out of his hands just so I can say I did it… but decided that was quite rude, and beating up Toby Keith might leave a black mark on my record (he would have wanted to roll if I did it). So, I thanked him for his time and support, which seemed to confuse him some as he gave me a perplexed look and said, “No buddy, thank you, you’re what this is about. Make sure you come out tomorrow night.” So, as per my direct order from Toby, I went to the concert (it was free after all). Since my time in Iraq, I have seen 2 big concerts, equally about the number I see in 5 years back home- but the break is great and it gives you a chance to enjoy a sense of normality and forget you are in Iraq. Possibly the best part of the concert, which was even more fitting that it was Memorial Day weekend, is what happened just before Toby Keith took the stage. A bus rolls up, and the staff at the Hospital starts bringing out the casualties who are healthy enough to make the trip and place them at the front of the stage like they do for every concert here. As they were wheeled or assisted to their seats, the crowd erupted in applause for them. Not applause like they did for Toby Keith, but a different kind of applause, with deeper meaning, with a lot more behind it than what we commonly know as applause. It was awesome, a woman next to me shed a tear and everyone had that little goose bump feeling….. It was the team telling our MVP’s that we were with them, proud of them as brothers in arms, and thankful for what they had given as a member of our team. It brought it all home right there for me, why I was here and what I was a small part of. All four branches of the service are here, civilians of several countries, as well as members of elite units such as the Special Forces. But when our brothers and sisters from the CSH (Combat Support Hospital) started limping or wheeling into their cheers, we were all one and all proud of their sacrifice, our sacrifice, our families’ sacrifices and everything being done during this battle of the broader war on terrorism…”

SFC Smith, I salute you and all the enlisted soldiers serving the US Army, I salute you for being the first one on the tarmac when the choppers are arriving with wounded soldiers, the first one to look for the best way to better serve the soldiers when they are trying to push out of the kill zone when their convoy is under fire, the first one to let me know when as an officer I am looking at the forest but not seeing the threes and always reminding me “ Missions First…Soldiers Always” .

Until my next entry, CPT Franco – out.

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