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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mission Incredible

Sometimes Mom never knows where her job is going to take her. Or how it’s going to alter her life. This week an assignment idea arrived in the inbox that had her jumping through hoops at the opportunity. Her [unclassified] mission if she chose to accept it? A day trip to Indiana for a media tour of Camp Atterbury, the current home and training grounds of soldiers in the 48th Brigade, who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan as members of Task Force Phoenix.

After arriving at Lowe's Aviation before the sun came up on Wednesday morning, Mom checked her only baggage, i.e. a slight fear of flying, and boarded the small military aircraft with about a dozen of her fellow media and community members, including her "adventure instigator" Ruth Sykes of the Macon CVB, Macon City Council's Rick Hutto and Georgia Public Broadcasting's Josephine Bennett. Also on board was a soldier in her own right. Sitting to Mom's left was the CVB's Meg Lipper, one of the biggest cheerleaders and believers in the 48th. And little did her solider husband know, she was coming to pay him a surprise visit since he was among those training in Indiana before heading overseas.

After touching down amongst the round bales and crop fields of the Columbus, Indiana airport, the group soon arrived at camp and attended a breakfast and briefing that explained the mission in Afghanistan, which involved mentoring and preparing the newly formed Afghan security forces who are charged with protecting their own country when the U.S. has less of a presence (God-willing and the Taliban never rise) one day.

During this time, in a well-executed mission, Meg left her table at the briefing, and was reunited with her husband with a surprise hug attack. Needless to say, in their few minutes together, there were tender moments and tears between the husband and wife team who have been through this so many times . . . Desert Storm, Bosnia, Iraq and now Afghanistan . . . and their appreciation for each other is evident. Every moment they have together is cherished, and their love story rivals the greatest romances.

Then it was off to the physical training grounds . . . a land of tents, out-houses and a mess hall called Warrior, where a good bit of the troops were calling home as they acclimated themselves to the rough and tough world in which they would be living for an entire year. On the way to the camp, Mom's convoy saw first hand the first of several Afghan roadside ambushes that kept the soldiers on their combat boot toes. With several machine guns and Afghan-garbed head cloths popping up from a corn field, Mom took a deep breath and realized they were definitely in the Midwest, although not Kansas, or Georgia, anymore.

So, the first of Mom's life-altering moments? Trying to figure her way around a MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat). After being handed a plastic sack that labeled the main menu item as vegetable manicoti ("That's actually one of the best ones," a solider tells her), Mom took her seat amongst the other soldiers and soon needed several of them to help tear into the never-ending packaging, heat her manicoti in the strange "cold water + powder = heats up fast" pouch and ever share their hot sauce when Mom took her first bite and immediately looked desperate for condiments. If this was a food review, Mom would have both thumbs down and using all of the words in a Thesaurus that synonym with YUCK!

But it's not what you eat, but the company you keep that made it one of the most special meals in Mom's life. Elbow-to-elbow and eye-to-eye, Mom had the opportunity to sit with those who make our great country possible. And even though there were only crackers and Ranger bars to break, she broke bread with the best. From here on out, when she bows her head over a meal, she'll never forget those she shared an MRE with.

Those same soldiers were soon suited up for combat as Mom and company boarded the bus for their next stop: a giant field under rain that soon turned cold and sideways for Mom and media setting up shop on the front lines.

What took place next was an unexpected battle simulation where a 48th convoy was greeted by friendly "Afghan" villagers (including a live horse, several goats and a few wayward chickens to keep things real) who tend to fill the street when soldiers come through to cheer and show their gratitude. However, behind a cluster of trees were the "bad guys," the opposing forces who show their ingratitude with gunfire and IEDs (improvised explosion device). Before we knew it, one of the Hummers had been hit and the rest of the convoy had to spring into action to put an end to the bad guys and rescue their injured comrades. And like true heroes, every man and woman was on deck to pull it off.

What impressed Mom the most? Combat today is well beyond limiting women soldiers to be the best she can be. Mom's heart lept at the site of he and she soldiers pulling the plow (so to speak) right beside each other with equal, well-trained rhythm. And those lady soldiers aren't always the stereotyped tomboy. One commented on how one of the first things she'll do when she goes home is get a mani/pedi. "I'm tired of being a boy," she laughed with the looks and smile that echoed Halle Berry. This same woman who will soon be leaving for Afghanistan has already been to Iraq, where she came under attack fire and was forced to (successfully) use her weapon.

Combat in the field was followed by a walk through a simulated Afghan village. The day ended back at Warrior with a de-briefing/press conference with Task Force Phoenix Commander Brig. Gen. Lawrence E. Dudney, Jr.

Later that afternoon, Mom boarded the plane at the Columbus, Indiana airport, settled into her seat next to Ruth and knew she had no right to complain about being tired, wet, cold and unusually hungry. She only has reasons to be grateful that when God blessed America, one of the biggest blessings is the 48th Brigade.

Pictured are members of the 48th holding a copy of address Macon with Mom, Meg Lipper (left) and Ruth Sykes (right).

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