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'who's Jessica Lynch?' Reservists make uneasy transition to war

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Posted 09 October 2003 - 12:00 PM

Reservists make uneasy transition to war

by April Curtis
The Palatka Daily News

Arrington Gray was in her second day of college classes when her reserve unit received deployment orders.
Spc. Gray, then 18, had been in the Army Reserves for eight months and had only attended drill twice. Even though she was the youngest in the unit, she had completed her job training as a truck driver and was eligible to go, unlike some that had been in the unit much longer.
"My mom freaked," she said. "I'm an only child."
Pfc. Eric McCormick, 21, was preparing to go back to school when he received his orders. Besides his family, he had some others close to him that had to receive the news.
An assistant coach of a JV girls' basketball team, he had to leave with half the season completed. Telling his team, he said, was tougher than anything else.
"They cried and got emotional," he said. "It was really hard."
For Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Dwayne Dycus, it was an expected call. The Army veteran and reserve officer had been in Iraq before - for Operation Desert Storm. Even so, it was a different experience, he said. Reassigned to the 319th Transportation Company as a platoon leader, Dycus had to lead soldiers he was unfamiliar with, except for McCormick. Gray was in another platoon section.
All three soldiers are members of the 228th Transportation Company, headquartered in Palatka. Called up in January, they were over the water by February and in the war zone from the day war was declared, said Dycus.
Welcome to Camp Viper, home of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
"We got ambushed twice, and took personal small arms fire," Dycus said. "The Marines provided security force and took them out. People watch and hear it on television, but until you're actually there in the environment, that fear of being shot at, you can't explain."
The 319th supplied fuel for the 1st MEF, shuttling fuel from point A to point B, close to the action.
"We started with 62 pieces of equipment and ended up with 24," Dycus said. "There were mechanical breakdowns and we couldn't recover the equipment because of being prone to attack. We just left it."
For the two younger soldiers, it was a surreal experience. Plucked from their ordinary surroundings they were plopped down in the middle of danger, where the bullets and the possibility of dying were real.
"I didn't know what to expect," said McCormick. "I tried to think of the worst possible thing, and then if it was less than that, it wouldn't be so bad. But you can't really prepare."
"I was thinking, 'this is the middle of nowhere,'" said Gray. "It's the beach without the water."
"It's the biggest litter-box on earth," McCormick interjected. "Every day there was a sandstorm. Sand gets in every place you can possibly imagine and some not imagined."
"There were no facilities," Gray explained. "You got baby wipes and a bucket of water to wash with."
Using humor, McCormick said, was the way that he tried to deal with the tension. Being reassigned was difficult, according to all three of them, because they had trained with their own soldiers and knew each other's quirks.
"I didn't like the fact that we were split up. You like to be with your own unit," McCormick said. "You look to your left or right and you know them. They've got your back."
"It's hard to go with people you don't know, trying to learn faces and names," Gray said. "I didn't like being in that environment with strangers."
Dealing with new personalities could be a mine field all by itself, according to both of them.
"Not knowing about people could be weird, you have to watch yourself," said McCormick. "I would keep a smile, maybe act stupid. You have to keep a smile or go nuts."
"In an environment like that you can't get mad at anyone or let little things bother you," said Gray.
Indeed, it is not so much the little things that bother them.
According to Dycus, their unit would travel "ambush alley," a road with berms built along it that was always likely to be assaulted.
"We were told that supply trains were attacked frequently," Dycus said. "They would hit our unit and others, along with the Marines, all during the war."
McCormick spoke of a particular evening when they were under attack.
"I looked up and it looked like fireworks, like flashes," he said. "When the sun came up, there were about 300 dead outside the berm. There were people on top of people, so mangled. It was graphic."
Worse than that, he said, was the smell.
"I will never forget that smell for the rest of my life," he said. "You cannot describe it."
The conditions sometimes left the soldiers in the dark about the war they were fighting. They had little communication with home, only getting a five-minute opportunity once a month to call home during the war. The Marines would loan them a satellite phone to make calls.
Gray recalled a family member asking her about Jessica Lynch, the rescued POW. "I said, 'Who's Jessica Lynch?'"
Coming home, they said, has been a mixture of joy and guilt, because of those who are still there. They are among the first ones to return from the 228th. The major portion of their company is still in Iraq, caught up in the extended deployment orders that will probably keep them there for a year.
"I feel guilty that we left and they're stuck," said Gray.
Returning after eight months to a normal life requires some transitioning. Gray has had a birthday since then, turning 19 after her return home.
Slipping back into their normal lives has been at times difficult.
"With friends, it's strange because we can't always connect on things anymore," said Gray. "I have to go back to a civilian way of thinking."
"Since I've been back, I haven't thought about the military at all," said McCormick. "I've tried to forget a lot of stuff I don't want to see again. My friends will ask, 'Did you see dead bodies?' I saw dead, but I didn't want to."
Both McCormick and Gray have been treated positively by those who know of their service, they said. McCormick received a key to the city of Gainesville, his hometown. He has also been treated well by friends and family.
"I've had drinks bought for me when I was in uniform," he said. "My friends had a party and they all clapped for me. It felt good."
Gray has had similar experiences. "My mom had yellow ribbons everywhere, even the dog had one," she said.
Even so, they find it a little strange sometimes to think they have something in common with older veterans.
"My father's friends will call and tell me they appreciate it," McCormick said.
"My father was in Vietnam and he wants to share experiences," said Gray. "He was supportive."
For Dwayne Dycus, he returned to his wife, Anastasia, to whom he gives much credit.
"She gave me all the support," he said. "I left her here alone and she continued to function."
Dycus also returns as the senior officer at the 228th. He'll take over as acting commander in the near future, once the paperwork is completed.
He has much to say about his soldiers.
"I'm proud of them. I would serve with them again," he said. "These guys volunteered and sacrificed their own personal life to defend freedom. They volunteered - not drafted. Anyone that wears the uniform deserves respect. That's why people thank them."


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