Veterans Day Has Fresh Meaning for Iraqi Freedom Vets
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2005 Retired Navy Rear Adm. Greg Slavonic was visiting wounded coalition soldiers in Baghdad's International Zone hospital last year when he started a conversation with a badly wounded soldier. That day, the soldier was being prepared for evacuation to Germany to receive critical medical care.
"There was no doubt his rehab was going to take months," Slavonic recalled. As medical staff continued to ready the soldier for his flight out of Iraq, the soldier looked at Slavonic and said "'Sir, I want to go back to my unit and my buddies. The job's not done here, and I'm not ready to go home. Can you help me stay?'" Slavonic said the soldier told him.
The newest U.S. war veterans all have stories from their combat zone experience - some good, some bad. For Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, the images and memories of their comrades are fresh in their minds on Veterans Day 2005.
"Veterans Day has always had a special meaning for me," Slavonic said. "Both my father and step-grandfather served in World War II. ... I had the opportunity to serve in three wars during my 34-year career - Vietnam War, Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom II.
"Over the years, having the opportunity to serve alongside men and women who believe in freedom and military service - I can't think of a greater calling than to have the opportunity to wear the cloth of your country while in service to your country," Slavonic said.
Marine Corps Sgt. Denny G. Meadows was a Boy Scout when his brother served as an Army captain in Operation Desert Storm. During his brother's deployment, Meadows participated in Veterans Day parades with the scouts, and it was his brother's service during the Gulf War that made a big impression on Meadows on the value of veterans.
"I remember getting letters from my brother describing, just so I could understand, what it was like over there," Meadows said. But it took basic training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., for Meadows to grasp what his brother was trying to tell him.
"The true significance of Veterans Day never really hit me until the day I arrived in Parris Island and started learning the history of the men who came before me sacrificing so much so that I might be free," he said. "That compelled me to reach down inside and man up to the same adversities that my predecessors once faced."
Meadows, now with the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, served seven months in Iraq at Taji Military Training Base, where he helped train the fledgling Iraqi army as part of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team. It was his first combat experience.
"Having been to Iraq and back enables me to interact a little more with the veterans I meet day to day," Meadows said. "I can now share stories and joke, laugh and complain with them, because I've experienced what they once did. It builds a strong and lasting bond that every veteran can depend on whether you just got out of the service or retired 20 years ago."
Although Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Bryant Leon Mormon recalled his tour in Iraq as "emotionally and physically draining in every way," he is back in the U.S. Central Command theater for his second tour after spending more than a year in Iraq and also serving in Afghanistan.
"I lost a lot of brothers over there," Mormon said. "I will never forget being there and the family I served with over there. I miss all of them so much."
Mormon also served as a military adviser and helped train Iraqi security forces. During his yearlong tour in Iraq, he served in many places throughout the country, training and fighting with Iraqis, but also beside his fellow U.S. servicemembers. One roommate during his tour in Iraq, Army Staff Sgt. Todd Cornell, was the first "AST," or adviser support team member, killed in action from the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq.
Mormon's worst recollection of Iraq, he said, was when a bomb destroyed an Iraqi dining facility, killing several Iraqi soldiers Mormon had been training. "There was nothing I could do but watch my soldiers die," Mormon said.
But Mormon pressed on and continued to train Iraqi soldiers, also participating in several goodwill missions - delivering toys and clothing items to Iraqi children living in a trash dump, and delivering school supplies to children in an elementary school.
"We (veterans) love America - we do it without any reservation again and again," Mormon said about military personnel who serve their country at war.
Slavonic, like Mormon, traveled Iraq extensively when he served with Multinational Force Iraq. In northwestern Iraq he witnessed the unearthing of about 200 men, women and children, many of the victims had single bullet wounds to the head.
"They were executed one by one and dumped into a large hole and buried," Slavonic said. "Over 2,000 Kurds were executed and buried in this area about half the size of a football field."
Despite losing comrades and witnessing the evidence of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, Slavonic remembers a trip to Najaf after coalition forces secured the city. A group of boys was standing around as his convoy rolled up to a school. After about 15 minutes, a boy approached him.
"I was standing in the courtyard when a young boy ... took my hand and said, 'Thank you,'" Slavonic said.
Meadows, like other U.S. veterans who have served in Iraq, said that he has many good memories of Iraq that temper the bad ones.
"Not every experience over there is a bad one," Meadows said. "For every shooting or death or injury, there's a little girl high-fiving soldiers and Marines, or a new Iraqi soldier making a decent living and providing for his family," he said. "Or better yet, there is a brand new country being stood up, saved from tyranny and introduced to democracy."
Aside from the obvious common thread - service in Iraq - that links these military veterans, they also are bound by strong personal convictions that veterans are owed a lot by their nation.
"The American public needs to take just a minute to say thank you to a veteran," Meadows said. "Not only on Veterans Day, but every day.
"These men and women sacrificed themselves so that Americans may be free. It doesn't really matter if they served overseas or domestically, because military life is a very demanding life to lead. Protecting America's freedom is perhaps one of the toughest jobs, and it takes much courage and dedication to do so."