Nearly 150 people, including former and current Georgia Army National Guard soldiers and some spouses and other guests, gathered Saturday afternoon at the Statesboro Armory for a first-ever reunion including those who deployed from here to Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 17 years.
Mostly, it was a casual gathering of friends and comrades, like a family reunion as much as anything. A food truck operator sold sausage dogs, chips and soft drinks. T-shirts and tattoos were more in evidence than anything resembling uniforms. The prepared remarks and ceremony, constrained to a few minutes in the early afternoon, were not really formal either, but provided some necessary solemnity in a family that has seen seven members give their lives in serving their country, in a nation that has recently seen its long involvement in Afghanistan come to a troubling conclusion.
Lt. Col. Dan Chicola, current commander of the 177th Brigade Engineer Battalion, which is headquartered at the armory, reflected a current message of the state command on this topic in his remarks to the citizen soldiers and retirees.
“The Georgia Army National Guard and the units represented here today have always successfully completed the mission, whatever the mission was, overseas and stateside, so I just want you to make sure you remember that, and would urge all of you to stay focused on our success as an organization, the Georgia Army National Guard, as well as your families and all of your brothers and sisters of arms,” Chicola said.
He had given a brief history of the combat engineering battalion and its deployments.
What was previously the 214th Field Artillery was converted and re-designated in 1993 to become Attachment 1 of the 848th Engineering Company, then expanded, reorganized and renamed again a month later as Headquarters Company, 648th Engineer Battalion, assigned to the 48th Infantry Brigade.
It was the 648th that was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and returned the following year. Then the 648th was re-designated again as 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion on Sept. 1, 2007, and then ordered into federal service and “home stationed” in Afghanistan as part of the larger brigade combat team.
Although the unit was returned to state control in 2010, members of the 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion also accompanied the combat team on deployments in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014. Since the 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion was re-designated as the 177th Brigade Engineer Battalion in September 2015, some of the battalion’s solders have accompanied the 48th Brigade Combat Team during its 2019 deployments in Afghanistan and assisted during Georgia’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
National Guardsmen of this generation were often exposed to duties as hazardous as any faced by regular Army soldiers.
"Either we found the bombs or the bombs found us," said retired Sgt. 1st Class Scott Gilje, who retired from the National Guard since 2008 after 20 years of service.
When he and the rest of the 648th were deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, the company he served in was assigned to do route clearance, checking for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which often took the form of roadside bombs.
Before the deployment, Gilje lived in Brunswick, driving to the Statesboro Armory for the one weekend of duty each month. That and two weeks of annual training, in this area usually at Fort Stewart, are the typical annual service of a National Guard member when not called up for special duties.
Gilje now lives in Des Moines, Iowa, where he works for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, managing a national wildlife refuge. He attended the reunion with his wife Melissa. They met when both deployed for Iraq, after her National Guard unit from Missouri was attached to Georgia’s 648th. They now have two sons together, ages 12 and 14.
Asked if the unit lost anyone while he was deployed, Gilje said, “I lost three of my soldiers,” and noted that their photos are among the seven on the memorial wall in the armory’s front corridor.
Aug. 3, 2005, became the deadliest day in the engineer battalion’s history when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in an automobile in Baghdad, killing Sgt. Jerry L. Ganey Jr., Spc. Matthew V. Gibbs and Sgt. 1st Class Charles H. Warren.
"I think of all those guys every day,” Gilje said.
Playing of Taps
Others from the battalion who “made the ultimate sacrifice,” as retired Command Sgt. Maj. James Dennis put it, were Staff Sgt. Dennis P. Merck, on Oct. 20, 2005, at Camp Stryker, Iraq; Master Sgt. Davy Weaver, on May 18, 2008, in Qalat, Afghanistan; and Sgt. Brock Chavers and Spc. Isaac L. Johnson Jr., both on July 6, 2009 in Konduz, Afghanistan.
Dennis, who had served as command sergeant major first of the battalion, then of the brigade and finally of the entire Georgia National Guard before retiring more than a decade ago, led Saturday’s brief remembrance. He quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”
Then bugler Kathy Cox played Taps.
‘Saved soldiers’ lives’
The ceremony echoed both the dangers faced by the “IED hunters” and what their work meant as they helped clear the roads.
"Yes, yes! I think every time we found an IED we saved some soldiers' lives,” retired Sgt. Randy Brown, from Cochran, said when asked if he still feels a sense of accomplishment.
He deployed with the battalion in 2005-2006 and again in 2008-09, both times in Iraq. When the engineers found a bomb, they would close off the area around it and call in another unit that used robots to either disarm the bomb or blow it up with an charge of C-4 explosive, he explained.
Brown’s most frightening moment was when he watched a rocket-propelled grenade fired by an insurgent pass directly under the Buffalo armored vehicle he was in to explode on the other side.
A firefighter in civilian life, he hasn’t give up dangerous work. Brown had been looking forward to the reunion.
“I was so excited,” he said. “Some of the guys I hadn't seen since I retired, and some I hadn't seen since we got back from Iraq. Oh yeah, man, it's like family today. It's like family."
One of the still-active National Guard soldiers in attendance was 1st Sgt. Nick Ives. He arrived at Georgia Southern University as a student in 2003, joined the Guard his first year there, and went on to serve in Iraq in 2005-2006 and in Afghanistan in 2009-2010.
Now Ives is a financial advisor in Savannah and serves as first sergeant of the 177th Brigade’s Alpha Company, based in Glennville.
"One thing that can't change is the camaraderie and the work we all did together," he said. "Regardless of what happens anywhere, we'll still have that."
Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Kinney, now with the 3rd Battalion 121st Infantry Regiment, presented retired Lt. Col. John “Opie” Davis with a combat engineers emblem and the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team patch for the work Davis and his wife Laura did in organizing the reunion. John Davis was 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion commander, circa 2010-2013.
“We’re going to do this every two years in Statesboro,” Davis said Monday. “Statesboro, Georgia has been phenomenal in its support of that little unit right there.”
Retired Col. Bob Baldwin, who first “stood up” the 648th Engineer Battalion back in 1993 returned from Madison to speak to the group, and at least two members from the old 214th Field Artillery, now in their 80s, attended.