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Iraq vet to speak at local program
Lt. Col. Gary J. Morea to keynote Veterans Day observance
Lt. Col. Gary J. Morea

Lt. Col. Gary J. Morea, veteran of three tours of duty with helicopter units in Iraq, and who prior to attending West Point was an enlisted soldier in a tank crew, will be the featured speaker for the Statesboro Veterans Day program hosted by American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90.

Free and open to all, the event at the Averitt Center for the Arts’ Emma Kelly Theater will open at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday with musical entertainment by Russ Lanier. The main program begins at 11 a.m. and features other speakers, prayers and music.

Morea is a professor and chairman of the Military Science Department at Georgia Southern University. Now 46 and on track to retire at the end of 2015, he will make educating Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, as he has done at Georgia Southern and two other universities, the capstone of a 24-year Army career.

“I can’t think of a better way to finish it up,” Morea said. “We talk about pulling as we climb, and what this is really about is shaping the next generation of officers, and that has been the real reward, is kind of seeing the light come on in their eyes and knowing that I’m sending really quality people out to the force.”

An aviation officer flying attack helicopters since the mid-1990s, Morea first saw combat in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He deployed to Kuwait for the invasion from Illesheim, Germany, where from 2001 he had been commander of C Troop, 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry, one of the first units equipped with the Longbow version of the Apache attack helicopter.

He rotated out of that command just prior to the invasion, but served as an assistant operations officer and flew combat assignments such as security — patrolling around forward-operating bases, for example — and reconnaissance.

Advancing to occupy the former Iraqi Airbase at Balad, U.S. soldiers found it “still a smoking ruin,” Morea said. Bunker-buster bombs had blasted large holes in reinforced concrete walls 12 to 15 feet thick, and the runway had been battered and neglected. But an engineer battalion made the runway fully operational in about three weeks, demonstrating that the U.S. Army is “pretty good at fixing things,” he said.

‘Things got real’

Iraqi ground forces succeeded in shooting up a number the helicopters as the invasion continued. One, not directly part of the 6-6 Cavalry but attached to it, made an emergency landing, and its pilot and co-pilot were captured.

“From that moment, things got real,” Morea said. “I felt like the mood up until then was, this is going to be over with quickly, you know, this is not going to be too difficult, et cetera, and I think that moment was kind of a reality check for a lot of people.”

The two fliers were repatriated within a month or so. But the invasion taught Morea that plans never really survive the first contact with the enemy, he said.

His second tour immediately followed the first, as Morea volunteered to serve with U.S. Army V Corps, remaining in Iraq until July 2004. This was a headquarters-type assignment, but involved him in coordinating air brigades throughout Iraq and commanding several efforts to rescue soldiers, recover the remains of the dead and recover downed aircraft.

In the interim years, Morea advanced his education and made his entry as an ROTC educator as an assistant professor of military science and recruiting operations officer at Hofstra University in Hampstead, New York.

But he deployed to Iraq again in December 2009, through much of 2010, with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, out of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Air Field. Back in Baghdad after the 2007 “surge,” Morea found the situation greatly changed.

The single brigade now occupied an area once been held by 10 brigades.

“At the end of that rotation, Iraq was different,” Morea said. “The elections were occurring. The mood had changed, and things were looking really very positive. And, in fact, areas that had been called the Triangle of Death and things like that, we were occupying and walking around freely.”

After this year’s advances into northern Iraq by the so-called Islamic State extremist group, Morea sounds like a realist when asked whether U.S. accomplishments in Iraq will last.

“I think the jury’s still out. Only time will tell …,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about teaching a man to fish, you know, that old cliché, and I think that region of the world is never going to be stable if the populations that are there are not able to secure and maintain their own freedom.”

He chose GSU

Back from his final deployment, Morea was accepted as a military science professor and assigned to Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He served one year there before getting his first choice, Georgia Southern.

Since arriving here in August 2012, he has overseen continued growth, creating a two-battalion “task force” structure where there was previously one ROTC battalion. While the Eagle Battalion at GSU has 200 cadets, the roughly 100 cadets at Savannah State University and Armstrong State University now have a separate command within the task force.

Construction of Georgia Southern’s new military science building is slated to begin next summer, around the time Morea’s replacement arrives.

“I inherited a great program, and it has been hard to improve upon it, but I think we’ve made it even better …,” Morea said. “I think we have an irreversible momentum right now, where the quality of the cadets is just so good that they both attract good cadets and they each help improve the other.”

Originally from Astoria, New York, Morea participated in Junior ROTC in high school and enlisted in the Army in 1986, first in military intelligence. Then he served as a tank crewman with the 204th Cavalry in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1990, he received his commission in 1994. His first assignment as an aviation officer was at Hunter AAF in Savannah, where he served with other units before becoming an attack platoon leader with the 1-3 Attack Aviation Battalion.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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