Thursday, December 9, 2010

Destination Iraq: 'I knew what I was getting into'

   On Aug. 31, President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq seven years after more than 4,400 U.S. troops loss their lives in a gung-ho war effort that left an ill-fated country in tatters and the American people grappling with a recessive economy and coping with political infighting.
   It's "time to turn the page," said President Obama, making good on a campaign pledge to draw down tens of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq. Despite the number of battle-weary troops returning home to their families, there are others preparing to deploy in what has been dubbed "Operation Iraq: Enduring Freedom."
   Six U.S. Army reservists from Memphis are part of that number receiving orders to report to Iraq after a 20-day training period ends at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Fort McCoy is a 60,000-acre military installation where reservists and active-component military personnel from all branches are trained.
   Sgt. Eric Heard, Sgt. Courtney Prewitt, Spec. Stephen Cowart, Sgt. Lecarto Pendleton, Pfc. Derrick Smith, and Spec. Benito Casino Henry Jr. will report for training on Dec. 31 and afterward spend up to a year in Iraq. They will be leaving with the 380th Engineering Battalion from Greenville, Miss.
   "We were involuntarily transferred (from the 441st Engineering Battalion in Millington) for mobilization to go help them in Mississippi," said Henry, 28, who is spending the time that's left with his wife, Renetta Williams-Henry, 27, and their children, Reiahnna Sanaa Henry, 3, and Braylen Carlito Henry, 2; and Henry's children prior to marriage, Bre'Niesha La'Sheala Henry, 5, and Benito Henry III, 3.
   "I'm trying to spend as much time with my family as I can," said Henry, who married Renetta more than two years ago. "We don't know how long we're going to be over there."
   Once the reservists are processed, they'll be apprised of their mission. For now, Henry, who has served with the 380th one weekend each month since May, doesn't know what the mission entails or where he might end up once he and the others set foot on Iraqi soil.
   "Operation Iraqi Freedom" began March 20, 2003. Since then, sectarian violence, along with the threat from al Qaeda, continued to mar the country even after former president George W. Bush called an end to combat operations aboard the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
   "Mission accomplished," Bush declared then. But the war lingered on.
   The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes on its Web site various hazardous exposures that U.S. troops had encountered, or can expect, during their tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, another country withering from violence and internal combustion.
   Some of those hazards include: (1) Burn pits: smoke exposure from dioxin, hydrocarbons, ash, etc.; (2) CARC (Chemical Agent Resistant Coating System), burning paint from military vehicles; (3) Contaminated water that could cause cancer; (4) Exposure to cold and heat; (5) Depleted Uranium, which causes any number of illnesses; (6) Infectious diseases, such as Brucellosis, Malaria, Shigella, Nontyphoid Salamonella, which cause cancer and other ailments; and (7) Toxic embedded fragments from bullets and shrapnel.
   "All I got to do is trust in who I'm trusting and return home with all my fingers, toes, and all that," said Henry, referring to his faith in God. "That's what I signed up for. So I can't complain. When I signed that contract, I knew what I was getting into."
   Renetta didn't have an inkling of what war looks like in Iraq and Afghanistan, for that matter, until the images were continuously being flashed across the television screen. But when Benito broke the news several months ago that he was being deployed, "I was in denial. Then I felt numb and angry."
  No one really knows what is going on over in Iraq, she said -- not even Benito.Then she asked herself: "What are we fighting for? Why does he have to be gone for so long? He has a family."
   The questions keep coming to Renetta. And she doesn't have the answers. What will she tell the children in their father's absence? "They'll going to ask about their daddy," she said. "So I'll just tell them that he's at work."
   Renetta works two jobs and plans to quit them as soon as Benito and the 380th are deployed. "I'm planning to spend the time with my children and stepchildren. They'll already miss one parent. I don't want them to miss both of us by me being at work."
   Benito expects to finish the mission by February 2012. Then he'll return to Memphis once again as an Army reservist. Until then, he'll be on active duty status, beginning Dec. 31. "After 180 days of active duty, I'll be considered a veteran with benefits," he said. "I'll have more days than that. Then I'll have more money and benefits to take care of my family."
   Renetta, more than anything, would prefer her husband to stay home.