Sunday was Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that celebrates an unlikely victory in Mexico against the forces of France, around the time the United States was ending its own Civil War. On this 5th of May, a group of American soldiers of the National Guard celebrated unlikely victory of their own in a war that continues to this day.

Their fight was waged in 120-degree heat. It involved rolling past and through insurgent ambushes in Iraq and surviving detonations of roadside bombs that morphed into ever more deadly improvised explosive devices. It all happened during the first year of the Iraq War.

The victory celebrated Sunday at the armory, and at Papa Joe’s sports bar, was a win that celebrated beating the boredom common to soldiering everywhere.

The 15-year family reunion block party of the 1498th Transportation Co. marked victories against financial and family reversals, and in fair wins in fights waged with PTSD.

They called themselves the “O.G.,” the original gang of the first California National Guard unit into Iraq in 2003.

The unit was a mash-up of soldiers from Riverside and San Bernardino, the Antelope Valley

and Sacramento.

If they made a movie, it could be called “The Dirty Dozen Dozens” and would be about tough, spirited men and women soldiers. They started with 270 troops, sent the fittest 180 overseas to Kuwait and Iraq and returned with about 150 who completed the entire year’s tour in a battle against extreme heat, fear and the death of easy hopes of early return.

“When they started, they were not the most soldierly bunch,” their First Sergeant James Earl Norris said. “But they were good people and determined to do

their job.”

The 1498th’s mission in the first global war of the 21st century was to take 100 trucks called heavy equipment transporters — HETs. About one-third of a football field in length, each 90-ton behemoth of rolling steel could carry an M-1A Abrams tank into the fight and back.

After the first Gulf War in 1991, the National Guard took over most of the Army’s transportation assets. This meant when the next war came after 9/11, National Guard troops would go on a change of mission from fighting fires and helping in floods.

“I signed up after 9/11 because I was outraged,” Peter Mavropoulos told me 16 years ago, when the unit was training for Iraq at Camp Roberts in central California.

Mavropoulos, a retired Army Guard sergeant, along with a sister soldier, Ana Laura, organized the group’s 15th Annual Reunion. Along with the Family Readiness Group, they spent weeks planning the set-up of tents and tables and making sure there was chow, bouncy tents for the kids, a magician and a Greek food truck.

In 2003, I spent weeks and months in training in Kuwait, and in Iraq, then trucked 1,500 miles of bad road to Baghdad and back, with Sgt. Doug Duhaime and Mavropoulos. The assignment was called embedded journalist for the Antelope Valley Press and it was an honor to ride with two of those nearly 200 troops.

“You made those two famous,” Sgt. Jerry Galdiano, one of the “O.G.” original gang of 1498th truckers said. Galdiano, like the others, braved the hazards of Iraq during a year of

growing insurgency.

He was part of something larger than himself, something Norris, now a retired sergeant major, called “The spirit of the American soldier. They might not be the prettiest bunch of soldiers, but they got the job done.”

“War is hard,” retired Staff Sgt. Jay Kallsen, who was 53 when he went to Iraq, said. “There’s no way of knowing how it will come out.”

The unit looked like America, with men and women of all races, religions, colors, creeds and many national origins. First Sgt. Norris was a native of Tennessee, the executive officer, retired Maj. Hatem Abdine, was born in Kuwait. The youngest soldier was 19 years old and the oldest, 63.

Among the group of soldiers who made the cut to deploy were four Vietnam War veterans, three in their 50s and one in his 60s. Several were grandparents.

Iraq was a war where women proved themselves in combat, like Christina Van Gorden, now Bautista, who was a teen soldier and now a mother of three. Soldiers like Alicia Gilbert and Irma Rodriguez and Virginia Austria, awarded a Bronze Star for her role as a machine gunner in a firefight with insurgents.

Tomas Padron, a Cuban refugee who recently retired as a sergeant major, said, “My service was my gift back to America for giving

me freedom.”

The “weekend warriors” had an attorney, a banker, postal and casino workers, a railroad cop and railroad conductor, some law enforcement and plenty of truck drivers. In ranks of former regulars were at least a dozen Marines, plus assorted Army Rangers, paratroopers, infantry grunts and armor cavalry scouts.

While unit members trained for war in the Iraq desert, they camped in a rain forest at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and a damp woods at Camp Roberts and fought off respiratory infections that threatened pneumonia. Once they were 8,000 miles away in Iraq and Kuwait, they were in the world’s

driest climate.

They completed a year’s service attached to 4th Infantry Division, the regular Army division that captured

Saddam Hussein.

“We made history,” Army Ranger Kairi Lewis said, raising a toast to his military family at Papa Joe’s sports bar. “We are history, the 1498th!”

They returned home as fresh combat erupted in Baghdad and Fallujah. More than a dozen Purple Hearts were awarded for wounded in action, but all returned alive.

Sunday’s formation was the final formation of the first National Guard unit sent to Operation Iraqi Freedom from California. The unit is being re-organized, so the colors, the unit’s flag, is retired.

“I looked at these guys at the after party at Papa Joe’s ... trading insults and going after each other, the originals, you guys were the best of the best,” Mavropoulos said. “We made history and I felt so proud I was part of it then and I was there from the beginning to the end.”

It was the final formation, but not the last reunion. Promises were kept and new ones made.

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