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Iraq Veterans Proud to Serve, Eager to Deploy Again

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2006 – With the war on terror in its fifth year, U.S. military personnel continue to pack duffle bags and don desert camouflage uniforms -- many not for the first time.

"I am proud of what I accomplished during my tour in Iraq and would be proud to return, on sea or on land," Navy Lt. Cmdr. David Bitler, a surface warfare officer, said. Bitler is assigned to the USS Tarawa, which returned from a Middle East cruise in February.

"Most of all, I'd be honored to work again alongside the Iraqi people, whose bravery and courage in the face of continual barbarism and anarchy is our best hope for long-term success and, I believe, our survival," Bitler said.

Bitler was assigned to the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team in March 2004 for six months as an individual augmentee in Baghdad. In 2005, just months after returning from Iraq, Bitler found himself afloat on the USS Tarawa, halfway through the ship's seven-month deployment to the Arabian Gulf to support operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The ship also supported relief operations after a devastating earthquake in Pakistan in October.

"On a personal level, ... I was in the middle of buying a new house, which required signing over a power of attorney to my brother ... to complete the process," Bitler, an Ohio native, said. "Professionally, I had to drop out of my night-time MBA program I had just been accepted to, preventing me from getting my master's degree, vital in making promotion to O-5.

"But the personal and professional benefits were just as significant," Bitler was quick to note.

During his first tour, in Baghdad, he was assigned to a new department overseeing the logistics of standing up new bases around Iraq and rebuilding the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. "Having trained my entire career to destroy things, I suddenly had an opposite task, to help build and create an organization - almost out of thin air - that could defend a nation of 30 million people."

Army Sgt. Jared Zabaldo understands the personal sacrifices and personal and professional benefits of deployment too, he said. The Army Reservist, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 413th Regiment, 7th Brigade of the 104th Division (Institutional Training), at Vancouver Barracks, Wash., volunteered for a nine-month tour in Iraq in 2004. He is headed back to Iraq in 2007 to serve with Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq.

"I joined the Army Reserve to do something for my country, and in the reserve system either you're training to do something or actually doing it," Zabaldo said. "I was in the latter half of a semester in law school, and the Army Reserve called me up one day and said they needed a journalist in Iraq, and I jumped on it."

Zabaldo, an Army journalist, will likely deploy as a battalion training team member and help train and advise Iraqi forces, a role he is prepared for based on his previous service in Iraq.

"One thing I always remember is a mission I went on with the Iraqi 2nd Battalion outside of Taji, Iraq, in June 2004," he said. "My first experience with them was rolling silently through the back roads outside Taji at 2 a.m. We were heading into a suspected insurgent operation out in the countryside, and I couldn't have felt safer with the guys."

Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Flynn, from Loogootee, Ind., served a yearlong tour with the Marine Corps Training Assistance Group of the U.S. Military Training Mission in Saudi Arabia. He was the senior military adviser for 2nd Brigade of the Royal Saudi Naval Infantry, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a mission he volunteered for. After war broke out in Iraq, he volunteered for duty there and spent 14 months.

"I was the senior adviser to the Iraqi Intervention Force and the Iraqi 1st Mechanized Brigade," Flynn said. "I extended there because I wanted to see the mission completed. Of course, your family would prefer that you were with them, but my family was totally supportive and provided me that support throughout all of these deployments and many more over the past 22 years."

Like many others in uniform, Zabaldo also is putting aside his educational development to serve in Iraq. "This deployment (in 2007) will make life tougher because it appears that it might occur just a couple months before I'm scheduled to graduate from law school," he said.

Despite the setback, he is optimistic about putting the mission first. "There are soldiers with much tougher situations than me, people with families. But this mission is so important to get right that I would really consider it an honor to be brought back and inserted into the mix again. The law school will always be there," the Milwaukie, Ore., soldier said.

Despite the obvious sacrifices being made by service personnel who deploy, many of them are driven to serve in Iraq because of fond wartime recollections and their sense of duty.

"The Iraqis I worked with and who are my friends sacrificed much for their new country and have risked their lives ... to work with the Americans to bring about peace and democratic freedoms," Bitler said. "I love working for an organization where 'honor, courage, commitment' aren't just bywords, but necessary characteristics for surviving and succeeding through never-ending challenges and obstacles."

Zabaldo, one of the many men and women who joined the U.S. military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said he shares the same patriotic perspective. "I think the majority of our servicemen and women are patriots, and they are proud to serve," Zabaldo said. "There's also something to be said with having worked with the Iraqis before.

"I do feel compelled to go back, because it's important to ensure Iraq has the ability to protect its freedom from whoever would seek to destroy it," he added. "I can't imagine that a successful exit from Iraq wouldn't be a catalyst for something much bigger and much better over the long term."

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