View from the home front

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   With but a few months remaining before she graduated from high school, U.S. Army Specialist Brandi Perry Jones had contemplated going to college, but she decided on another option.
   "I was at a friend's house," said Jones, who graduated from Elizabethton High School in 2000, "and I said 'I want to travel and see the world and do something good and I'm going to join the Army.'" Like the thousands of young women and men who enlisted in the armed forces prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the decision changed the young woman's life -- in more ways than one.
   During Jones's basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000 while the ship was docked off Aden, Yemen. The attack killed 17 sailors and was an ominous precursor to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
   "Before I didn't really think about it that much," said Jones, 21, a transportation specialist based at Fort Eustis, Va., "but when faced with knowing that someone we knew had been attacked, it made a lot of us up here realize that we had let our guard down a little bit."
   Less than one year later, terrorists hijacked commercial aircraft and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attacks ushered in a new era of warfare preparation for the U.S. military. The attacks also steeled the focus of what it meant to be a U.S. soldier, said Jones.
   "Right after Sept. 11 at first, it was emotion with anger, and then it was worry and what else is going to happen," Jones recalled. "After 9-11 a lot of things changed. We really started looking around us instead of thinking we were the ultimate force that no one could touch.
   "Once everybody started thinking about it, we were all ready to go over there and do whatever we could."
   Today, Jones is stationed at Fort Eustis as part of the 7th Transportation Group -- the second largest transportation group in the Army. "We have more than 200,000 members over there," said Jones. "Of that number, probably a little more than half are not in a hot zone."
   Located at the tip of Newport News, Va., Fort Eustis is the home of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, which includes the Transportation Center and School and the Aviation Logistics School. The base is home to over 17,000 servicemen and women. Troops from the 7th Transportation Group were not directly involved in hot zones in Iraq, Jones said. "Thankfully, our guys are nowhere near the battle right now," she said. Still, scores of Army reservists based at Fort Eustis have been mobilized or are serving overseas.
   Bombs have rained down on Baghdad since March 19 when Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way. U.S. and British forces continue to push deep into Iraq while encountering rigid opposition from Iraqi troops and paramilitary groups loyal to Saddam Hussein. Jones said that contrary to popular media opinion, neither she nor other service members expected a cakewalk into Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq.
   "The worst part is not knowing what is going to happen next," said Jones. "The best part is, I know we are doing the right thing."
   Jones spends a good deal of her time as a member of the base's Family Readiness Group. She frequently makes telephone calls to families of soldiers deployed from Fort Eustis and assists in publishing a bimonthly newsletter. While tensions rose about the war in Iraq and with the ongoing deployment of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, military families kept the tight-knit support system.
   "As soon as the soldiers deploy, we have a 72-hour window we have to meet to call their family or next of kin to let them know they have arrived," she said.
   A support group for spouses of service members meets once a week while the Readiness Group also plans events for military children. The Group tries to accommodate family needs in every way possible while their spouses are serving overseas.
   "If one parent is having a lot of trouble you tell them 'Hey, you need a break, take a couple of hours to yourself,'" said Jones. "I see a lot of stress in here, seeing your family deployed and gone ... I know that would be really hard. It is hard enough on my mom with me not being deployed but being here."
   Another difficulty following the heightened security of post-Sept. 11 military life was the alarm children of military families faced with seeing armed security patrols around the base.
   "A lot of children were getting scared," she said. "They would ask why all the vehicles were being searched and why the police had guns."
   The U.S. and Great Britain coalition to oust Saddam Hussein also kept security around the base tight. Jones said weekly briefings of base and international activities were frequent, keeping soldiers apprised and prepared for potential threats of terrorism. Security around Fort Eustis remains moderate and yet vigilant. The entire 8,300-acre facility base can be locked down in 30 minutes, said Jones.
   Perhaps suitably, Jones has formed a U.S.-U.K. coalition of her own. Her husband, Bruce, is a civilian who hails from Wales, England. "He moved to North Carolina with his mother and made his way up here," she said. The two met in Virginia over two years ago and married Aug. 2, 2001. The couple's union has produced one daughter, Aria, who lives with Jones's mother in Elizabethton.
   Jones said she joined the Army with the intention to go to college, and as "a way to get out of Elizabethton." She inked a four-year service contract in March 2000 and departed for Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in July 2000. There, she underwent basic training and underwent specialized transportation training for her Specialist designation.
   Her advice to high school students looking at their future is straightforward: Always look at your options. "There is always something better you can be doing," said Jones. "It doesn't have to stop at working one job; you can always move up no matter where you are."
   Before she departed for the Army, Jones insisted on doing a final season of The Wataugans' dramatic production at Sycamore Shoals State Park -- a production that had become a passion. She had played the "crazy, pregnant lady" for five years.
   "I had to do the show one more time," she said. "There is something about playing a pregnant lady I liked." It is a role Jones said she was looking forward to reprising this summer. Jones initially was part of a company scheduled for deployment, but that was averted. Jones said she would likely be granted a medical discharge from the Army, which could bring her home by May.
   After her discharge, Jones plans to return to the Tri-Cities area. Regardless of her next mission in life, she said a small town like Elizabethton had a far more appealing quality today. The importance of having her husband and daughter as well as her entire family nearby was a blessing realized after one has been away for a long time.
   "I never really understood the quality of living in a small town and knowing a lot of the people there and getting around easy. Knowing that if I come home I want to go to Pizza Inn to get cinnamon stromboli because we don't have a Pizza Inn here!" she said with a laugh. "It's good to have something to come home to."