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Tankers bring a bit of Kentucky to Iraq

8 Oct 2006 | 2nd Lt. Lawton King

Nearly seven months ago, three Marines and one sailor assigned to 2nd Platoon, E Company , 4th Tank Battalion, a reservist unit headquartered at Fort Knox, Ky., bade their Kentucky home good night and deployed to Iraq as part of Regimental Combat Team 5.

Leaving their families and careers behind, these citizen-warriors quickly found themselves operating in a foreign environment that bore little, if any, resemblance to the undulating meadows unique to the Bluegrass State. Gone were the spring jaunts to the races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, which, like the festivals celebrated in ancient Greece, mark the arrival of spring.  Gone were the weekend excursions to the lakes and rivers that irrigate the verdant farms and, of course, gone were the Kentucky-distilled bourbons that grace the shelves of all the commonwealth’s bars. In their place were sand, dust and blood.

“It makes you understand what you have,” said Cpl. Russell Pickard, a 26-year-old tank loader from Frankfort, Ky., who attended Franklin County High School and joined the Marine Corps in October of 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. “Kentucky is a very good-looking state – the rolling hills, the grass ... something this place doesn’t have.”

“I miss the city of Louisville,” added Cpl. Travis C. Marcum, a 24-year-old gunner from Louisville, Ky., who graduated from the University of Louisville with a Bachelor of Science in justice and administration and is currently in the employ of Gannet Direct Marketing. “It’s a really charming place. There is always something to do.”

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Giovanni Dattalo, a 28-year-old hospital corpsman from Louisville attended Doss and Butler high schools, articulated similar sentiments.

“I miss the fresh air, leaves, changing colors and driving my truck,” he said. 

More importantly, though, he added, “I miss my mother’s homemade pasta and my homemade wine.”

After months of conducting counterinsurgency operations, staging armored patrols, serving as a quick-reaction force and hunting insurgents who often dissolve into the local populace before they can be apprehended, the group yearned for the conviviality of Kentucky.

“I miss the hospitality of home,” said Cpl. Adam “Shrek” Conners, a 22-year-old field radio operator and Woodford County High School graduate from Lexington, Ky. “We’re a family here, but nothing compares to family and friends (back home).”

Tasked to augment A Company, 2nd Tank Company, RCT-5, the group landed in Iraq around the end of March and quickly underwent a baptism of fire.

The tankers, owing to the unrivaled firepower and maneuverability of the M-1A1 Main Battle Tank, were assigned a vast assortment of missions that guaranteed them long hours on the thoroughfares that shadow the Euphrates River in the corridor between Fallujah and Habbaniyah.

In Habbaniyah, “we were going out two times a day everyday,” Pickard said. “You were in the tanks, or you were in the bed.” 

For weeks on end, Marines braved the oppressive elements and the nebulous insurgents without so much as a weekend’s reprieve.

Save for a few lulls provided by rotations to Fallujah, the Rick Pitino-style, full-court-press approach to the operational tempo continued unabated for the Marines’ duration in Iraq and made for a frenzied deployment.

“It certainly has been challenging,” remarked Marcum.

“For myself, the deployment has been educational,” added Conners.

But the Marines managed to find comfort in the simple pleasure of life.

“No matter where you are in Iraq, the good things help the time go by a lot better,” Conners indicated.

Returning from Habbaniyah in the wee hours of the morning of Sept. 3, the group switched on the television to view the annual gridiron meeting between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.

Not satisfied with the grainy and pixilated image flashing across the tank command post’s screen, Marcum opted to forego the company of his fellow Kentuckians and ventured out into the darkness on a quest to locate a television set with a high-quality picture.

“So I walked over to the gym and sat in front of a treadmill and watched the game until 0700,” he said.  “It sure was worth it!”

Several weeks before the first Saturday in May, during the season of dreams in Kentucky when the roses double as laurels, Dattalo’s mother mailed him a newspaper that listed the racing card for the upcoming Derby so he could place a wager.

“I had the Derby winner over here,” he exclaimed. “I had $10 on him across the board.”

Dattalo, who at one time lived next to Hall-of-Fame jockey Pat Day, has treated numerous combat wounds since he arrived in Iraq, probably more than he would like to remember, and yet he expressed concern for the maimed Derby winner.

“I think about Barbaro’s broken leg.”

And so, seven months after disembarking in the land between the two rivers, the Marines and sailor prepare to return to Kentucky and resume their lives in the civilian sphere. Their farewell to arms, though, will never resound with finality, and their memories of Iraq will never recede into the abyss of neglected history, but will instead always remain at the forefront of their consciousness.

None of them can ever forget the company field operation when every single vehicle, except the tanks, became mired in the glutinous muck, nor can they forget the episode when “a Marine bet another Marine to jump off the humvee into a mud hole.  He came out looking like a chocolate brownie.” Jim Smiley, the gambling protagonist of Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” would have swelled with admiration.

But not all their recollections will elicit smiles and snickering 10 years from now, for tragedy befell them on several occasions and reminded them of the transience of life. 

“Life is very precious, and knowing that we lost fallen brethren really takes a toll on the heart,” Conners said.

Townsmen of a vibrant town, they will return to the Bluegrass seven months older and generations wiser.

“When I return, I will go back to work, pick up where I left off,” Pickard said. “I will go back to the routine I had before all this started.”

“I think I have changed,” observed Marcum, who plans to apply to law school. “I am more respectful. I’ve seen corpsmen help people.  I’ve seen people pay the ultimate price. I’m really appreciative of the people who came before me and will come after. I will always look at those monuments differently.”

“I think I have become mature,” Conners explained. “This place makes you realize how lucky you are.”

“I think we’re making progress in the right direction,” said Dattalo, who hopes to re-enroll in school to become a nurse practitioner. “These Marines from ‘Echo Company’ are doing a terrific job completing their mission.”

Their platoon commander, Capt. Tom Montgomery, a 33-year-old investment banker from Charlotte, N.C., commended the cohesion and forbearance of his men.

“These guys blow anybody away,” he said.  “I think the Kentucky reservists definitely fit in to the community that lends itself to a tighter esprit”

But for the residents of the commonwealth, Montgomery’s plaudits should come as no surprise, for as William Faulkner wrote in his classic novel “The Sound and the Fury,” “God is not only a gentleman and a sport; he is a Kentuckian too.”