An old Army saying is, “Ask any soldier what is the best outfit you ever served in?” and the answer usually is “my last one.”
My last was with the National Guard in Iraq.
Before deploying to Iraq in 2003, I consulted Joe Galloway, co-author of “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young,” along with the late Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. Moore was commanding general during my basic at Ft. Ord. Galloway was the papa mentor that hired me into United Press International 40 years ago.
After Ernie Pyle, Joe is dean of American war correspondents. His rules for reporters headed to Iraq included, “always shake out your boots because crawly things like to climb in. Better yet, sleep in your boots. You never know when you have to leave in a hurry. Dress like a private and watch what sergeants do. If they duck, you better duck.”
Pyle, the gold standard of World War II war correspondents, once wrote that you will never see so tired, dirty or hard-working a crew as the infantry. The unit I wrote about during the first year of the Iraq War called itself the “1498th Infantry, Truck.”
They weren’t grunts who kicked doors and fought in the streets. They were combat support truckers, traversing thousands of miles of bad road that concealed improvised explosive devices and machine gun ambushes. They drove “Mad Max” convoys where roads were the battleground and trucks the targets. Truckers hauling the goods humped gear, ferried fuel, ate dust and fought insurgents like infantry.
Before they shifted to National Guard, some were Marines and a few paratroopers and Rangers. There were Vietnam War veterans. Also, delivery truck drivers, a dump truck operator, mail carriers, a casino worker and a chaplain’s assistant.
They were G.I. Joes and Janes from Riverside, Antelope Valley and Sacramento, mostly middle-aged civilian soldiers. None were trained for counter-insurgency warfare in a Middle East country of 26 million people who felt more invaded than liberated. But that is the war they got.
As the unmissed, unhelpful ex-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the Army you’ve got.” So, no body armor for the Guard. No vehicle armor. No real maps. They went to war with Michelin guides and WalMart walkie-talkies. In the “spirit of the American soldier,” as their 1st Sgt. James Earl Norris used to say, they made it work, anyway.
The 1498th Transportation Co. of the California National Guard logged 2 million road miles, dozens of ambushes, with more than a dozen soldiers wounded for Purple Hearts. They did it, as the Army is fond of saying, “by making it happen.”
One who made it happen was Sgt. Peter Mavropoulos, a specialist when I met him. Specialist rank is a private, first class, promoted. You can’t make it happen without specialists. He was going to make sergeant E-5 rank soon. Known as “Peter the Greek,” he was in his mid-’40s and rejoined the National Guard after 9/11 because, he said, he “was outraged” by the attacks. Peter revered the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Army got the benefit of that outrage and heritage.
I embedded in Sgt. Pete’s platoon and rode in his 90-ton heavy equipment transporter. I rolled with him and his truck master buddy, Sgt. Doug Duhaime. With 200 soldiers to write about, you still could only ride in one truck.
Altogether, the company covered 2 million miles and I published 2.3 million words in the Valley Press. Command counted the miles and an editor pal counted the words on his computer.
Our story wasn’t the “big story” of the invasion. It was the Joes and Janes who made the trip. A few got weary, sick or scared. Almost all of them made it, anyway, with honor and courage. A few were in their ’60s.
That’s the Guard.
On Sunday, the Army and California National Guard awarded the Meritorious Service Medal to the now-retired Sgt. Peter Mavropoulos. The ceremony was at the unit’s home armory.
Peter’s medal is usually awarded to high-ranking non-commissioned officers like master sergeants, first sergeants, sergeant majors and to officers, colonels and generals. You could say Mavropoulos is a “senior” NCO.
Next year is 20 years since 9/11. His retirement rank was sergeant E-5, what Ernie Pyle would call a buck sergeant, like Vic Morrow, on the old “Combat!” TV series.
“Peter the Greek” got a medal for doing it right and doing it so often, that the prestige award made sense. The citation said his “efforts led to more than 4,800 soldiers being licensed” to drive that 90-ton HET beast, along with Humvees, gun trucks and other vehicles. He personally trained more than 1,500 soldiers.
“They should have made you a staff sergeant, E-6,” his Guard buddy, retired SSG John O’Hern said.
Peter laughed, and joked, “They should have made me a private! My unofficial title was ‘unit irritant.’”
Of the medal, Peter quoted one of his Greek forebears, Odysseus, “In this whole world, I am just a man, nothing more, nothing less.”
Whatever rank, Sgt. Mavropoulos would have gotten it done. His work, the citation said, represented “exceptionally meritorious service.” Congratulations continue to pour in.
Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group with emphasis on veterans and community mental health issues. As editor of the Antelope Valley Press, he deployed as embedded journalist to the Iraq War in 2003 with the Antelope Valley unit of California National Guard.