Friday, 24 May 2024

Guardsmen recount tour of duty in Iraq

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From left, National Guard members Staff Sgt. Everette Prescott, Sgt. James Robinson, Sgt. Chris Deshiell, Staff Sgt. John Snowden and Sgt. First Class Chad Holland were honored at a Sunday gathering to celebrate local guardsmen who have served in Iraq. Robinson returned from Iraq in 2005, while the rest of the men returned home from Iraq in May. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.

 



LAKEPORT – A Sunday celebration at Lake County's National Guard Armory officially welcomed home local guardsmen who returned from serving in Iraq this spring.


Staff Sgt. Everette Prescott, 40, of Kelseyville; Sgt. First Class Chad Holland, 36, of Kelseyville; Sgt. Chris Deshiell, 47, of Willits; Staff Sgt. John Snowden, 37, of Lakeport, and Staff Sgts. Russell Wright and Don McPherson returned in May after serving in Iraq in the 649th Engineering Unit from September 2007 to this past May.


The Lakeport Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2015 and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 951 put on the event, which welcomed all active members of the military and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as veterans of other wars.


The afternoon event included a dinner, live music, awards and raffle prizes, led by VFW Commander Robert Deppe and his wife, Lisa.


Randy Sutton, whose son is on his fourth tour in Iraq, spoke about the importance of service.


VVA President Dean Gotham, after he was done with barbecue duty, added his note of thanks to the returning soldiers, telling them their service was both valued and appreciated.


"Welcome home," he said. "You're among friends."


The returning soldiers are among many local National Guard members who have served in Iraq in recent years, including Cliff Shores and Norman "Joe" Valdez Jr., both of whom are now retired from the service; Specialist Danny Strawn, Sgt. Jacob Taylor, Denny Salisbury and Travis Benson.


Sgt. Albert Manfredini and Sgt. Jody Helms both served in Egypt in 2004 as multinational forces observers with the United Nations, where they acted as "referees" between Egypt and Israel.


The men who returned from the deployment this spring were responsible for convoy security, working around Baghdad, Sadr City and Balad.


They come from a variety of backgrounds. Prescott works for Lake County Special Districts, Holland is a correctional officer with the Lake County Sheriff's Office, Deshiell is employed at Willits Furniture and Snowden is a full-time staffer with the local National Guard armory, where he serves as active guard reservist. Wright and McPherson did not attend the Sunday event.


None of the men had been deployed overseas to Iraq before last year. However, after Sept. 11, 2001, all of them took part in Operation Noble Eagle, said Snowden. Noble Eagle was a domestic security effort that included guarding the Golden Gate Bridge, chemical depots in Utah and other sensitive areas.


This past February, they hit a few improvised explosive devices – IEDs – and came under small arms fire on the east side of Sadr City, where they had just completed building a new combat outpost. Holland, a platoon leader, said they had some minor damage to vehicles but mostly were "ticked off."


Fortunately, none of the men were injured or saw serious fighting in Iraq. All of them, however, report trouble sleeping at night and other issues related to dealing with the stress of being in a combat situation.


Snowden said they ran their missions mostly at night. A strict curfew was in effect, so if they encountered anyone on the roads they had clearance to be aggressive in confronting them.


The men say that the situation in Iraq is not as bad as the media makes it appear. While the emphasis is on fighting and explosions, they said the new bridges and schools being built, along with new roads and water systems, don't get much coverage.


"I think, just generally, it's an unpopular war," Holland said, offering his explanation of its perception.


Although they didn't have the opportunity to meet and talk with civilians on a regular basis, in the encounters they did have they didn't experience hostility from most Iraqi citizens, who they found to be very generous and courteous.


Holland recalled a case where an Iraqi baker came out to speak to the soldiers one day, then returned to give them cake after cake, not asking for any payment, until they had to refuse to accept any more of the cakes he'd piled into their arms.


The men said they made a point of waving to people to try to present a friendly face. They also received a warm reception from school children they met, who they treated with glow-sticks. Some soldiers were known to give the children energy drinks, which the local sheik and the local school teachers didn't welcome.


There is definite hostility from some groups, however, such as the forces of Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose personal army defended Sadr City. US forces often get caught in the crossfire between Shia and Sunni Muslim factions, the guardsmen explained.


There also is the issue of weapons smuggling from nearby Iraq and Syria. Sgt. James Robinson, 37, of Lakeport, a postal worker who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 in a Petaluma-based unit before joining the local armory, said he was part of a patrol that looked for weapons coming into the country.


Prescott, who works on the county's sewer system, said Iraq's sewer systems and its entire infrastructure is aging and, in many cases, broken down. When Saddam Hussein's government fell, it left a vacuum regarding the management of those systems, as well as the electrical grid.


The men all noted the emphasis being placed on building clean water systems in the country.


Snowden said they saw definite improvements during their time there. For one, as security increased, people began to start cleaning up their neighborhoods, which had been littered with garbage.


He said they also saw people putting their lives back together. When the men first got to Iraq, a road they commonly traveled along was often deserted, with just a few people seen along it due to fears for safety. As they were preparing to leave, they drove down it one day to find it crowded with people and soccer games, with people waving and smiling at the soldiers as they passed.


Prescott said they saw a large community garden being grown along a security barricade wall, in an area where residents hadn't frequented.


Asked about when the US could begin to pull out, none of them can offer a definitive idea of when it can happen.


Holland suggests much of it depends on the Iraqi army and police forces, both of which are under increasing threats and pressure from insurgents. He noted they are stepping up more, and have taken over Anbar Province.


The Iraqi army also was able to take over Sadr City with no shots being fired, which wouldn't have been the case if US forces had gone in, said Snowden, because of al-Sadr's anti-American stance.


Overall security continues to be an issue, with police in some areas turning blind eyes to roadside bombs planted by insurgents, or being bribed to ignore them, said Prescott.


The soldiers are concerned that if the US leaves too soon, Iran and Syria will seek to fill the void in Iraq.


"I think we're going to maintain a presence there for years to come," said Prescott.


Holland said problems with insurgents and terrorist cells aren't new. He pointed to Germany during World War II, where even after Adolf Hitler committed suicide, his forces tried to fight the Allies. However, historians continue to debate just how severe of a problem the Nazi "werewolf" forces were.


One unit member from Fulton may be facing deployment soon, but no other local members are scheduled to go to Iraq currently. All of the men have a 24-month hold before they could go back, either by order or voluntarily, said Snowden.


They approach their service matter-of-factly. "You joined up, you gotta do your fair share," said Snowden.


Robinson said he's encouraged by the increasing community support for guardsmen, such as the event put on for the men on Sunday. He called local support for soldiers "outstanding."


All of the men say they missed their children most while overseas.


Snowden said his 10-year-old daughter asks a lot of poignant questions – such as what happens when you get blown up – about his time overseas. "I don't answer most of them."


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

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A cake honoring the recently returned guardsman is served at the Sunday gathering. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 


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