The 389th Engineer Battalion is an Iowa-based unit of the U.S. Army Reserve 89th Regional Support Command. Part of the 389th is based in Middletown, a small town just west of my hometown of Burlington, Iowa. The 389th recently was called up.
On Tuesday evening, a Troop Send-Off Rally was held for the 389th at the basketball arena at the community college in Burlington. I attended after receiving an email asking me to come and lend support. Rumors were flying that anti-war protesters would show up. Fortunately, none did. The evening was somber enough.
By rough count there were more than 100 soldiers at the rally. Most of them young men, a few women, many of them married. They and their anxious relatives packed the bleachers in the arena. Being there brought into sharp relief the true price of the coming war: so many upstanding young men and women ready to serve in a foreign land, with the inevitable result that at least a few of them won't be coming back.
One moment I found remarkable occurred when the chaplain, Minister Upchurch, spoke to the troops about the anti-war demonstrators. He urged them to not worry about any protesters' condemnations, and then proceeded to quote passages from the Bible showing that a soldier's duty is noble. I couldn't help but think how far political discourse ("baby-killer") and just plain respect -- pictures of President Bush as Hitler -- have fallen in this country that a minister has to reassure our young men and women that they are doing good work.
Major General Michael Symansky, who heads the 89th, made the rally all the more poignant. During his talk, he asked how many soldiers had children under one-year old. Eight soldiers stood up. Eight children who may not know their fathers. Let's pray that doesn't happen.
Maj. Gen. Symansky ended his talk by giving each soldier a commander's coin, a specially minted collectible given as a token of honor. Maj. Gen. Symansky instructed the soldiers to give the coin to a family member, and said that the family member could return it to the solider if he or she performed well in Iraq. Let's pray that every family member with a coin has that chance.
The only slight bit of relief felt that night was the knowledge that the 389th will be involved in humanitarian missions and infrastructure building in Iraq. It is unlikely they will see combat. Yet it was impossible to let this interrupt a sense of foreboding. It is still a dangerous area of the world, and falling victim to a suicide bomber is a real possibility. And seeing the brave young men and women in the 389th only reminded me of the brave young men and women who are on the front lines.
Feeling depressed upon arriving home, I called a friend who usually cheers me up. It was a mistake: He's a college professor who has seen ten of his student-reservists called up. During our conversation, I remarked that I had the odd feeling of strongly supporting something that I hate so much at the same time. Saddam must go if the U.S. is to win the War on Terrorism. But that means the awful business of putting our young men and women in harm's way.
I took a tiny bit of solace in the reports Wednesday morning that many Iraqi soldiers, including some in the Republican Guard, are deserting. That could mean that the war in Iraq will be very quick with minimal casualties. Let's pray that it is.
Godspeed to the 389th and all the soldiers heading to Iraq.