Guardsmen redeploying against terror

Friday, February 5, 2010
Together on Christmas Eve are Tracy McDow, his wife, Carol, and Tessa and Jared McKnight.

More than 3,000 Tennessee National Guardsmen, including about 50 who left Lewisburg a few days after Christmas, are being deployed to Iraq today, according to Gov. Phil Bredesen.

They include: Marshall County Commissioner Larry McKnight's son, Sgt. Maj. Jared McKnight; their family friend, Sgt. Maj. Tracy McDow of Culleoka; and a Lewisburg father of three who's been celebrating a daughter's third birthday with his wife in a motel near Camp Shelby at Hattiesburg, Miss.

Those parents of three young children preferred to remain anonymous, but the soldier's wife is like many other relatives of guardsmen in the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment who were, according to a guard spokesman, permitted to see their loved ones march in a military parade today, perhaps the last time they'll see each other for nearly a year.

"Most of these men and women spent 2005 there" in Iraq, Bredesen said early in his State of the State Address this week, "and now five years later they are returning again... In their response to our nation's war on terror, these men and women have proved again Tennessee's claim to the title 'The Volunteer State.'

"Once again," the governor continued, "there are Tennesseans who are missing." Since his speech to a joint session of the General Assembly in Nashville, another soldier from Tennessee has died overseas in service to his country, bringing the state's loss to 115.

Meanwhile, Maj. Travis McKnight, the commissioner's other son, is already in Iraq drawing equipment for his unit, Larry McKnight said from Hattiesburg in a telephone interview Wednesday night.

The guardsmen who are about to depart have one of their own from the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment leading them, Brig. Gen. Max Haston, adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard. Haston was sworn in 16 days after a Christmas Eve interview with Sgts. McDow and McKnight in Lewisburg with the Marshall County Tribune, telling of their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A high point for the conflict in Iraq was the capture of Saddam Hussein, McKnight and McDow agreed.

McKnight's tour of duty included military intelligence work as a signal intelligence analyst.

"We're the ones who tapped into cell phone calls," he said. "We monitored Saddam's cell phone calls."

Since he was an enemy combatant, Saddam's calls weren't protected. Neither are calls from county jails.

"He'd call his wife every day," McKnight said. "They'd argue quite a bit. He was down a lot... He was a smart guy. He didn't say much. We learned more from lower level Iraqis (in Saddam's régime) who talked about certain cell groups making IEDs (improvised explosive devices.)

"Al Qaeda is good at what they do," he continued. "Even though they're our enemy, you have to respect them. They're fighting for their god, their ideology on how they see how they should be..."

McKnight, however, spoke first of family sacrifices during a tour of duty in Iraq: "We've actually got it better than the families left behind. Not to say my wife is alone, but things happen and (overseas) we've got a whole battery to get support."

Family readiness groups are of great assistance to relatives here, but constant camaraderie with fellow soldiers comes with interdependence in a war zone, he explained.

If a washing machine "blows up" here or the car breaks down between cities, that assistance is not always readily available, McKnight said.

Still, while friends always help each other in their community, life in Iraq remains very different, he said.

"A lot of Iraqis live in fear for their lives," McKnight said. "They feared Saddam. That's how he ruled. They're not used to thinking on their own...

"The educated people of Iraq are proud of that (their education, but) Saddam wanted to keep them uneducated," McKnight said, explaining this is based on his observations.

Still, Americans have an uneasy relationship with the Iraqis.

"One day they love America and the next, they hate us," he said. "But we're giving them a chance for peace and freedom.... We've seen schools built and blown up the day after."

Then soldiers hear from Iraqis, "I thought you were going to protect us," McKnight said.

Insurgents bomb their own country to "instill fear and maintain control" over the people, he said.

McDow's experience is in Afghanistan -- April 2005 through July 2006. He volunteered for the duty as an embedded tactical trainer with the Afghanistan National Army (ANA).

It was a "very exciting mission, very rewarding," he said of his time as one of 16 U.S. servicemen at a forward operating base where they taught soldiering to members of the ANA.

"We lived with them, so there was a climate of trust," McDow said when asked if he felt safe in such an assignment.

Living conditions started in the old Russian barracks when they had one or two men to each room, but their mission took them to mud huts used as shelter without electricity. They had cots, but they'd awake at about 4 a.m. and the temperature was already 90 degrees.

"We relieved a group of embedded tactical trainers," McDow said of an assignment in the Helmand Province.

Security for a very large dam and its hydro-electric generators was important and prompted battles.

"A convoy got separated and a huge fire fight took place," he said. "We could see the bombs bursting in air...

"We decided to go up to the plateau to provide over-watch during the fire fight," McDow continued. "Once on the plateau, we started receiving fire from a lower position.

"I was getting out of the vehicle, heard the swarming bee gunner... We looked for positive ID of the aggressor and once that was obtained, I instructed him to engage."

A machine gunner on top of an up-armored Humvee silenced the aggressor, McDow said.

As simple as that may sound, McDow said "I could have used 30,000 soldiers." It was his reply to a request for his reaction to President Obama's announcement in December that he would be sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

Now, McDow is in Hattiesburg, as is McKnight and his father, the county commissioner who this week was elected president of the National Guard Association of Executive Directors. Commissioner McKnight is executive director of the Tennessee National Guard Association. It's one of the reasons he's not running for re-election to the Marshall County Commission.

Wednesday, the McKnight family was spending time together seeing the sights of Hattiesburg.

Today, "3,300 guardsmen and women, to be exact, from Mountain City to Memphis, Tenn." are participating in a command ceremony for the inspection of the troops.

"It's a tradition with the 278th," McKnight said.