Friday, March 31, 2006

Charlie Co's Last Patrol

This IS NOT Outlaw's unit - but it's still part of the 48th! step closer to our Georgia Heroes - all 4,000 of them - bein' home!!!!! (Please don't forget to pray for those families whose loved ones WILL NOT be making it home, as well as those whose lives have been forever altered by being wounded in battle....)

Charlie Company’s last patrol
'It's been a long 18 months'
By Moni Basu Thursday, March 30, 2006, 05:24 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Baghdad, Iraq — A little after noon on Thursday, the soldiers heard the familiar rumble for the last time.

Photos of the last day

The earth trembled. Then, the tan, “armored beasts” emerged from the clouds of dust swirling about them.

Two Bradley Fighting Vehicles thundered into a motor pool at Baghdad’s Camp Liberty, back safely from their last patrol in the war-ravaged Iraqi capital. For the first time in days, it had been an uneventful mission.

“That’s a perfect way to end our patrols — with nothing,” said Staff Sgt. Jerry Bowling , a firefighter in DeKalb County.

The crews stuck their heads out of the hatches and cheered. Their fellow Gainesville-based soldiers on the ground stood in formation and saluted.

Never again would the roughly 135 soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment see combat in their Bradleys.

After 10 grueling months and an especially hair-raising last two weeks, the mission in Iraq for this Georgia Army National Guard unit was finally over.

The soldiers can now concentrate on going home. The unit, which is part of the 4,400-strong 48th Brigade Combat Team was the last from Georgia to do combat patrols in Iraq. It is scheduled to leave here in about three weeks. Until then the soldiers will clean and repair their Bradleys and pack for home.

When the last Bradley arrived on Thursday, Charlie Company soldiers hugged each other, celebrated with non-alcoholic beer and collectively sighed in relief.
“We’re done!” yelled Sgt. George Branson , a Fayette County deputy sheriff, standing atop his Bradley in a black Batman T-shirt.

Charlie Company had looked forward to this day for so long that some were left incredulous when the moment arrived.

No more hunting for insurgents. No more kicking in doors or riding down bomb-laced highways and into impoverished neighborhoods not knowing what enemy lurked around the corner.
“There’ll be no more contemplating mortality,” said Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Eaton, a full-time Guard soldier from Athens. “No more chasing ghosts.”

“I feel overwhelmed,” said Sgt. Guy Serapion , a student at West Georgia College, who just the night before sat in the gunner’s turret for four hours in front of a crumpled car thought to be rigged with explosives.

“Last May, I never thought we’d make it here. I’m just letting it all set in,” he said.
Capt. Anthony Fournier , the Charlie Company commander, toasted his troops and handed out specially made pewter coins that bore the name and insignia of the company, its platoons and the brigades it has served under.

On one side, it said “The Lost Company,” a moniker adopted by the soldiers because Charlie Company has been detached from the rest of the 48th Brigade since its arrival in Iraq.
“It’s been a long 18 months,” said Fournier, a schoolteacher from Augusta. “I feel a great weight lifted off my shoulders.”

He paused and then added that the feeling hadn’t quite settled in yet; that perhaps it would sink in the next day when he didn’t have to put on pounds of body armor and drive out onto the streets of Baghdad.

“It feels weird,” he said.

Weird, too, because the last patrol meant that soon, the soldiers would all go their own ways and be separated from the men they have shared their lives with since December 2004 when the 48th Brigade was mobilized.

“I’ll miss the camaraderie,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Sonen , a furniture maker from Dahlonega. “The experience of what we’ve gone through together — it’s like trying to explain what it feels like giving birth to a child. Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t really understand it.”

When Charlie Company first arrived, the soldiers provided security for the main highways. In the following months, they began patrolling areas of eastern Abu Ghraib, where they came into close contact with Iraqis.

It was during an Abu Ghraib raid that they discovered Baby Noor, the Iraqi child with spina bifida who was then flown to Atlanta for critical medical care. The Gainesville soldiers won worldwide acclaim for their efforts to save the little girl.

In the last few days, the soldiers routinely came under small arms fire and got caught up in attacks against Iraqi security forces. They were called to the scene of grisly execution-style killings of Shiite men. Two Bradleys were hit by roadside bombs.
Everyone was weary. Everyone was anxious.

“I’m tired of seeing dead bodies,” said Spc. Jose Resto , a Clayton County police officer.
In the final days, the soldiers talked little of the looming dates - the day of the last patrol; the day they would kiss Georgia soil. Instead they took turns rolling out, sometimes non-stop for six hours at a time.

The soldiers took few risks. They had made it through the deployment until then without any casualties. It was unthinkable to lose one of their own so close to the end.
“Thank God we’re in the Bradleys,” the soldiers said. With the situation deteriorating in Baghdad, no one wanted to go “out there” in a more vulnerable Humvee.

The officers of Charlie Company worried about all the insurgent activity over the last few days.
“Our number one goal was to do the best in our missions,” Fournier said. “Our number two goal was to bring everyone back.”

On Wednesday night, Eaton rolled out of the gates of Camp Liberty for his 99th and last patrol.
“Shall we dance?” Eaton said, as he always does when his crew rolls out.

His crew was pumped up. They decorated their Bradleys with the black flag of third platoon and a slogan in Latin that read: “Don’t mess with us.”

The soldiers wrote “Last Patrol” on the side of the vehicle with broken chemical lights.
“This is it,” Eaton said in his patrol briefing. “The last one. This is 18 months of your lives coming down to the last six hours.”

Ten months ago, the Georgia soldiers were new to Baghdad. They rolled out into the capital with trepidation. The terrain was strange; the culture foreign. Then, there was the fear of the unknown.

The crews patrolled for 12 hours, sometimes longer, in complete silence. Now, with just a few remaining hours, there was chatter on the internal radio — and even the occasional iPod.
“We used to patrol in silence. Not a word was said,” Eaton said. “I let them play music now. They are all so tired.”

“Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive.” The Bee Gees hit screamed into headsets. Everyone sang the chorus. It was all about staying alive on that last night.

The next morning, Eaton rode with 1st Lt. Jeff Moran , another full-time Guard soldier from Ball Ground, in the back of one of the Bradleys for the celebration at the motor pool.
They both knew this would be their last ride in the tracked metal boxes that had saved their lives so many times. When the 48th Brigade returns to Georgia, it will begin its transformation from a mechanized unit to light infantry. That means Charlie Company will no longer ride in Bradleys.

That everyone in the company is going home alive from a violent and random war, said Eaton, is testament to the fortitude of the soldiers.

“I think I speak for everyone in that this war is so difficult to define,” he said.” And the tangible successes — they seem to blur, one patrol after another.

“In this place, we can never seem to arrive at a sense of accomplishment,” he continued. “For us the last patrol provides a finality to the 18-month ordeal. The last patrol gives us that tangible we sought.”
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