Robert “Bobby” Babot, a local Army National Guard veteran of the Iraq War, brought a message of hope for peace through mutual respect to this year’s Veterans Day observance at the Emma Kelly Theater.
This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the origin of Nov. 11 as Veterans Day. American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90 held its annual public observance Saturday to avoid conflicting with Sunday church services.
A couple of things made Babot’s 12-month deployment during combat operations in 2005-06 unusual.
One thing was, he and his son were sent to Iraq at the same time, along with other members of what was then 648th Engineer Battalion of the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade. So they faced the dangers with people they knew from home, and in the Babots’ case, literally with family.
Once in Iraq, they were assigned to different missions. One of the first stories Bobby Babot shared was how he was told his son had not shown up as expected in Mahmoudiyah, a hostile area where there had been a mortar attack.
“My heart sank,” Babot said. “All I could do was listen to the chaos on the radio. An hour later when things finally settled down, I made a call to the armored battalion trying to track down my son.”
He also spoke to his wife Susan, Bryan’s mother, at home, where she had heard from Bryan the previous day. This led to frantic phone calls before an officer eventually emailed Bryan’s mother a picture of himself with Bryan to prove he was OK.
“The convoy had arrived safely, and he was actually there during the attack, but he was not hurt,” Babot said.
But with the abrupt words, “Farewell, brothers,” he reminded the audience that not all of the 648th Battalion’s citizen soldiers came home alive.
“On August 3, (2005), three close friends made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country,” Babot said.
Spc. Jerry L. Ganey Jr. of Folkston, Spc. Mathew V. Gibbs of Ambrose and Sgt. 1st Class Charles H. Warren of Duluth were on patrol when a truck loaded with explosives detonated near their armored personnel carrier. Despite their different home addresses, all were part of the Statesboro-based unit.
“The news was devastating. I had just broke bread with them the week before,” Babot said. “We came to realize the importance of family. We had to be there for one another, and that’s what kept us pushing forward. Their sacrifice was an inspiration to all of us, and they will never be forgotten.”
Law of reciprocity
For half of his time in Iraq, Babot was part of a military transition team, Americans training and mentoring Iraqi Army soldiers.
“Everybody knows the law of reciprocity,” he said. “You give and then you receive, what you give you’ll get back. Mom raised me to be that kind of person, to have an open heart, to have an open mind and then give people a chance.”
Of course, most Iraqis are of the Islamic faith. Before he went overseas, Babot’s wife had given him a crucifix ring. Most of the time he wore it underneath gloves, along with his wedding band. But one day he relaxed and took the gloves off, he said. One of the Iraqi soldiers asked “Are you a Christian?” and others gathered around.
This didn’t lead to conflict, but to a deep conversation, he recounted, suggesting that this might be meaningful in thinking about “the way things are today.”
“I was able to sit down with them and have a meaningful conversation about two different things, about religion, about two warring factions, but it was a meaningful conversation that we shared differences, and then we shared so much alike,” he said.
He was in his late 40s at the time and a master sergeant. After a while, the young Iraqi soldiers started calling him “Hajji,” a title of respect for an elder, originally a Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
“It’s all about developing relationships. Respect is so easy to earn,” Babot said. “It really is. All you have to do is give a little bit of yourself.”
He told how he stopped some Iraqi boys from beating up a little girl one day by yelling at them and then found a single flower on the ground nearby and gave it to the girl.
“That smile was everything,” he said.
Soccer ball giveaway
Another unusual moment during Babot’s deployment was “the soccer ball giveaway.” He and his wife had been very involved with youth soccer with their children, and he knew that many Iraqis loved soccer, but he hadn’t seen one ball during his deployment, he said. He asked Susan if she could send him some soccer balls.
The Ogeechee Soccer League and Sunday school classes at their church, St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, got involved, as did other people in the community. Four boxes that arrived for him in Iraq one day contained 75 to 100 soccer balls and a few air pumps, and he and Bryan and a few other soldiers pumped up soccer balls and threw them all to Iraqis as gifts.
With tears in his eyes for a second time, Babot recalled the day the 648th returned to Statesboro.
“Statesboro, you made me so proud when I came home. Thousands of you lined the streets, waving flags, flashing signs, showing us your appreciation for what we had done,” he said, choking with emotion. “It just helped bring everything back to where it should be.”
Babot retired from the National Guard in 2014 after 37 years of service, including 29 years as a full-time member.
Speaking of heroes
Also during Saturday’s service, Bulloch County Superior Court Clerk Heather Banks McNeal, Probate Court Judge Lorna DeLoach , U.S. Air Force veteran Lynn Bennett and retired U.S. Navy commander and pilot Cliff Holt each spoke briefly about one or more veterans they consider heroes.
About 80 people attended, fewer than usual. Many government and bank employees have Monday off, but veterans’ groups have long resisted adapting Veterans Day to a Monday observance day, and Sunday is the official holiday.
In peacetime, Americans can use virtues learned in war “and put behind us its ugliness and suffering,” American Legion Post 90 Commander Marvin Grimm said in his welcoming remarks.
“In peace we shall go forward together to scale new heights of achievement in unity of purpose and sacrifice for the common good and tolerance for those of different faiths and creeds and bravery to fight for social and economic needs,” he said, also calling for “ the discipline of good citizenship.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.