It's funny how life can change in a moment. Your world is sailing along smoothly and then all of a sudden you have to rush an injured child to the emergency room, or you learn a parent is sick and will require long-term care, or your stocks have plunged and you have to put off retiring -- again.
My world changed on 9/11. I heard about the first plane crash while driving to work that morning. I thought something had gone horribly wrong with the plane and it crashed into the World Trade Center by accident, like the B-25 that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. When the radio announced that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, I knew it was terrorism.
As a full-time member of the Minnesota National Guard, I wondered how long it would be before I was called to active duty. It wasn't long before I received my answer.
In July of 2003 I was deployed for 10 months on a peacekeeping operation to Bosnia. By then the war in Afghanistan had been going on for over 18 months, and we had been in Iraq for over three months. I knew it was just a matter of time before I would be sent to one or the other of the two combat zones.
After my deployment to Bosnia ended in the spring of 2004, I returned home to a hero's welcome with hugs and cheers from my family. I thought of the Vietnam Veterans who had come home to quite a different reception. I felt guilty for the support I was receiving when our Vietnam veterans had received little to none.
One day in the spring of 2006 while I was waiting to pay for gas, a man started to ask me questions about my new digital camouflage uniform. He addressed me by my rank, which suggested he had served in the military. After I answered his questions, I asked if he had been in the military. He answered that he had served in Vietnam. I extended my hand and said, "Thank you for your service." He shook my hand.
He started to leave, then stopped and turned. "You're the first person to ever say that to me," he said, and then walked away.
In December of that year I received orders to Iraq.
When I arrived, in January of 2007, I was on orders for a 45-day tour. My job was to help the First Brigade Combat Team (1st BCT) of the 34th Infantry Division redeploy to the United States. I was there as additional help to bring the guys back home. When I stepped off the plane my greeting party asked me, "Did you get extended too?"
The 1st BCT was extended as part of the surge. Things were chaotic in Iraq at that time, and the men and women of the 1st BCT were needed for an additional four months to help stem the tide of the insurgency. Thus, my 45-day tour became a seven-month tour.
After I had returned home, I was talking with a fellow officer from the 1st BCT with whom I had served. He wondered out loud how long it would be before we would have to go back to Iraq. In February of 2009 we received our answer. I redeployed to Iraq in April of 2009 with Headquarters of the 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division.
The atmospherics in Iraq had changed significantly since my tour in 2007. Although it was still dangerous, with occasional IED attacks and rocket attacks, you could tell things were changing for the better. Commerce was starting to take hold and the Iraqi people were reclaiming their nation.
The Iraqi Army we worked with was recognized by the public as a professional institution in which the people could trust. The rule of law permeated everyday transactions and the Iraqis were doing for themselves that which two years earlier they'd had difficulty doing. Our mantra was "by, through and with the Iraqis," and we saw it taking place every day. We focused on establishing security, building civil capacity and setting the foundation for an orderly and responsible drawdown of our forces.
The other day, while watching the news, I saw the last combat troops leave Iraq and smiled to myself. I felt honored that I was able to serve with the men and women of the Minnesota National Guard who contributed and sacrificed to help make that possible.
Capt. John Donovan is assigned to the Joint Forces Headquarters with the Minnesota National Guard. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.