Mom returns from Iraq

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
When April Garland signed up to become a member of the Tennessee Army National Guard 730th Quartermaster Company, she planned to pay her bills and fund her return to college.
Her husband Jeff was a 17-year military veteran and a member of the 776th Maintenance Company based in Elizabethton. She knew the risk that she or her husband could be activated for military service. What happened in January stunned them both.
"We never in a million years thought we would be activated at the same time," says Garland, who talked to the Star this week after returning from six months in Iraq with the 730th. "It was a whole new ball game when we both got activated because we literally had to leave our lives behind."
After being activated in December, April and the 730th shipped out on Jan. 19. Jeff and the 776th were activated for duty in mid-December and left Elizabethton for Fort Campbell, Ky., on Jan. 27.
The call to duty meant leaving the couple's son Dustin, 7, and daughter, Victoria, 3, behind with April's parents, Larry and Cheryl Shell, who found themselves parenting two children with the needs and wants of, well, children.
As deputy police chief with more than 20 years in the Elizabethton Police Department, Larry Shell has dealt with a variety of situations that require problem solving. He says the experience of parenting his grandchildren gave him and his wife a chance to relive the days of raising daughters April and Whitney.
"Having the children at this time has been a blessing for me and my wife," says Shell, who acknowledges he remained glued to news networks during the war. "It was like revisiting years gone by taking them to school."
April joined the Guard in mid-2001, shortly before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Tikrit and Fedayeen were as foreign to American tongues as the land where they were located. She was one of more than 100 members of the 730th that returned to the Tri-Cities last Saturday.
Her foray into the Guard began as something of a lark. She had spent a year working at East Side Elementary School as a teacher assistant. Jeff suggested she could sign up to fund her return to the college classroom.
After thinking it over, she signed up with Johnson City's 176th Company when she found an opening for an MOS (military occupation specialty in civilian-speak) that had a very short training time span.
After completing her basic training last summer at Fort Jackson, S.C., she returned to Elizabethton and enrolled at Northeast State Technical Community College. Her foray into education was short-lived -- the 730th Quartermaster was activated one day after the school year began.
The unit left Fort Campbell in late January, arriving in Kuwait on Feb. 5. The company's primary mission was purifying and providing water, bulk fuel and meals ready to eat. April's specialty is tracking inventory and moving the paperwork to keep track of supplies moving in the company.
"We didn't think we'd be a forward support company," April says. "We imagined ourselves in theater at the Fort at Doha; never imagined we'd be moving as forward support."
After combat troops rolled into Iraq, the 730th breached the sand berm that forms the border between Kuwait and Iraq. The invasion's early going brought confusion with sandstorms and sheer geography shock, delaying movement and presenting logistics challenges.
"We received word from home before we received word there that the war was getting ready to start," she says. "People at home knew more about what was going on than we did."
As television viewers watched the war unfold, embedded reporters told the stories of U.S. infantry and Marines battling their way to Baghdad. While combat soldiers from the 101st Airborne and 3rd Infantry Division cut a path through Iraq, the 730th trailed close behind, providing food, water and fuel supplies. A 10-member team of 730th members went forward with the 3rd Infantry to set up convoy support centers.
Garland recalled the unit's scariest time of hunkering down alone at a convoy center after several days trekking into the desert. A .50-caliber machine gun and each soldier's M-16 rifle were the sole means of protection for three days while trucks of Iraqis -- perhaps Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen loyalists -- motored along the periphery of the center. April remembers Iraqi vehicles containing the charred bodies of their occupants being visible in the distance. Sleep came rare and uneasy.
The 730th eventually set up at Camp Dogwood 10 miles southwest of Baghdad. There, the unit began their next mission of providing sustenance to roughly 89,000 troops each day. The work was grueling. Equipment broke down and supply trucks ran nonstop during the night. Soldiers were rationed two bottles of water per day to suffice for drinking and cleaning needs. Rugged terrain trucks moved through and often left half the water supplies being delivered along the side of the road.
"The roads were so rough they would lose half the water bringing it in," she said.
Each night, vehicles trucked into Camp Dogwood where the 730th off-loaded shipments by hand. Garland spent midnight until noon preparing paperwork and off-loading supplies. When the shift was over there was little to do but try and stay cool while heat, sleep deprivation and sand fleas menaced soldiers.
"We basically went out in the middle of the desert, slept in our trucks or set up tent, and that's how we lived," she said. "It was so hot it sapped you. You couldn't sleep because it was too hot."
More than 30 U.S. soldiers have been killed in various attacks since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities in Iraq on May 1. Many of those attacks have been directed against supply convoys. Sgt. Roger W. Rowe of Bon Aqua became the first member of the Tennessee Army National Guard killed in action last week when his supply convoy was ambushed by a sniper.
Garland said while her encounters with Iraqi citizens were mostly good, soldiers stayed on guard. April says Iraqi children begging for food were a frequent sight. "When you see those children on the side of the road, you know why you're there," she says. "The real reasons we were there may be different but when we see people who don't even have an opportunity to feed their children and you're giving them that with democracy, then you know why you're there."
Families of 730th members set up a Web site and established a family readiness support network and kept the families up to date. Despite the availability of e-mail and cellular technology, April says communication was poor. Soldiers rarely had an opportunity to use e-mail capabilities and stood in line for hours in the hope of getting an open line to call home for 15 minutes.
Knowing the couple's children were with her parents took an emotional load off April. Another saving grace for the units was the abundance of mail and care packages sent by families and local churches, she said. "You live for that piece of mail that you get," Garland says. "The support of this community was the biggest morale booster we had over there."
Had the company remained in country another couple of weeks, she says soldiers probably would have returned to Baghdad. Once she boarded the plane home, Garland said the emotion of ending six months in a theater of war and finally returning to her family overwhelmed her. "I think I cried for about an hour and a half," she recalls. Garland says she has no regrets about doing her duty, but the time sacrificed with her children is unrecoverable. "There's nothing in this world that can give that back to me or replace it," she said. "But as a mother I also made sure what was happening to those children in Iraq isn't happening here ... and I feel like I've given that much."
The company's next mandatory drill is scheduled in October. April and the rest of the company are on terminal leave until Aug. 1. She has four years remaining on her service obligation. April said word had it the local unit probably would not be returning until mid-2004. Due to his specialty -- repair and maintenance of small firearms -- Jeff may not return for up to one year, she said.
Garland said she had spoken little about her experience since returning. She holds fast to the belief that her experience was a type of destiny.
"I know there is a reason I was sent, and I know there was a reason I made it home," she says. "Maybe it is not clear to me now, but it will be one day."