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Godspeed and Welcome Home...

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You came here as strangers; you leave here as friends.

That is the theme expressed as old veterans of the Portsmouth area salute this generation of warriors as they return from or go to our fight in the war against terror. Under the leadership of Ed Johnson, Commandant of the Seacoast Marine Corps League, every military flight going to or returning from the conflict is met by 30 or more well wishers who express their admiration and thanks for this generation of heroes as they pass through Pease International Airport. To their utter surprise as they enter the terminal, they enter into a sea of cheers, hand clapping, hugs, and well-wishes. The surprised shock on the troopers' faces is a sight to behold. After walking through a gauntlet of love and sincere appreciation, they are escorted down "Heroes Walk" -- the walls of which display group pictures of previous flights of returning veterans of the conflict -- to where refreshments, free telephones, and whatever can be provided to make their stay in Portsmouth a pleasant life long memory.

I learned about these events a few days ago and have had the privilege of being able to attend every one since. For old soldiers these events are particularly charged with emotion as we all remember our own departure and return from our theater of war.

For Vietnam War veterans, there is an added imperative. We did not want this generation of those who have put their lives in harm's way to be tortured with memories similar to what we experienced in our homecoming. The Vietnam veterans were often the targets of the insults of those who bought into the notion that we conducted ourselves as baby killers in the style of Genghis Khan.

To say the least, it is a highly charged hour or two as we mingle with the troopers while their plane is being refueled. Over coffee, we learn a completely different picture of the conflict from what we see on the evening news. One M.P. Battalion Commander brought back my memories of the press in Saigon, who never seemed to leave the safety of the press briefing room. "The cost of insurance for the media is too high to have reporters leave the green zone and as a result local nationals are sent out to gather information," he said. The actual experience of the M.P. on the street is ignored. The pride, professionalism, humility, dedication, and obvious courage exhibited left me emotionally drained. Heroic actions of our troops are seldom highlighted in the press as I clearly recall them being in my youth during WWII.

The event is strictly informal until the troops gather for a group picture, to receive a formal salute from the ranks of the old veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Cold War, etc., to those who are going back to war or are on their way home. God Almighty, these extraordinary troops look like the quintessential picture of what one would consider pure excellence in an American warrior. They return our salutes as if they were part of the Washington D.C. Honor Guard.

In the case of the U.S.M.C. many are going back to Iraq for their second or third tour. Their impromptu singing of the Marine Corps Hymn while standing at rigid attention could not be staged better in a Hollywood production.

As a retired regular army Military Police Officer, I was delighted to see the M.P. unit looking every bit as excellent as the superb Marine Corps unit. Many of the M.P.s were returning from their second tour of duty in Iraq. They were clean-shaven and had washed using the wash room in their aircraft. "We are military police and are expected to look our best," one said. They all donned their best battle dress uniforms and had a haircut before boarding the flight home. What was especially impressive was that many in the unit were in heavy combat only 30 hours before departing Iraq. Their mission was to accompany Iraqi police and army units as they suppressed terrorist attacks in Baghdad during the last three months. Their causalities were in excess of most units, given that they patrolled some of the most dangerous locations in Iraq. Their commander, a ranger-qualified Military Police Lieutenant Colonel, impressed all of us with his intelligence and insightful eloquence in response to our many questions. The unit's main mission was to train newly-formed Iraqi police units while conducting joint operations. He was well pleased with the progress being made by both the Iraqi police and their new army units. At the group picture, after calling his unit to attention to receive our salute and render his own, he gave a short speech that impressed all who heard his comments.

Later that day, another unit consisting of medical personnel brought back memories of the self-sacrificing medics I knew in Vietnam, especially helicopter crews. They may not have looked as impressive as the M.P.s or Marines, but they made up for it in their pride of saving lives of Americans and Iraqis, including prisoners. Some of the latter kissed their hands; others expressed absolute hatred in their eyes even as the medics worked to keep them alive.

The next day when expressing my admiration for the troops, I used the word "love." Someone who had never been in combat responded, "Isn't that a strong term to be using?" I had to bite my lip. As an old soldier I had to realize that a civilian could never understand what it is like to be a part of an organization whose members routinely, without hesitation, put themselves into life-threatening situations for their comrades.

All Americans can be justly proud of the excellence, dedication, professionalism, and humanity exhibited by todayCB"C"bB,C"bB"s United States Armed Forces. They stand between modern civilization and those who would return us to the middle ages, if they were to realize their ambitions.

Within five years of 9/11 our forces have:

- freed 25 million Afghanistan oppressed people;

- freed 25 million Iraqi citizens from a heartless dictator;

- ended the regime of Saddam who invaded his neighbors, killing over one million Iranians -- 200,000 via chemical nerve agents;

- eliminated the Iraqi capacity to resume manufacture of chemical agents when U.N. inspections were eventually lifted - to use them again, or secretly pass them on to international terror groups;

- and, helped prevent another catastrophic 9/11 type attack.

Some falsely label our efforts as a fiasco. In all wars, there are things that could have been done better (just one of many strategic WWII blunders was the destruction of Dresden just weeks before the war ended). However, we can take pride in the fact that our forces liberated over 50 million people who were victims of tyrants who meant us harm. Losses have been significant, but are far less in five years than we lost during five days of combat in Okinawa or in the Battle of the Bulge.

Winston Churchill could utter again his famous comment about "so many owing so much to so few."

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James J. Reilley
LTC USA (RET)
Reilley@comcast.net


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