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Soldiers place flags at Arlington National Cemetery Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lest we forget: That we, and they, might know freedom

An email exchange with a retired Army commander puts things in perspective.

I got an email from a BEEF magazine reader that I feel compelled to share. Unlike those who are trying to burn and destroy, this email honored six true Americans who gave their lives not just for their fellow soldiers, but for you and me. Below is the conversation I had with Charles J. Barr.

I take this opportunity to thank you and express my sincere appreciation to you for your comments in the Editor's Roundup in the August 2020 issue of Beef magazine. I agree that Memorial Day and our Independence Day are the two most important national holidays we celebrate and observe. 

I farm and raise cattle in Pawnee County in southeast Nebraska. I am a U.S. Army combat veteran, having served two combat tours of duty in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom (I was mobilized twice out with my Army Reserve units). 

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During my second deployment, I commanded the 143rd Transportation Command. Our command consisted of 4,400 Soldiers, Sailors, Airman and Coast Guard personnel conducting transportation, port security, customs inspections, highway traffic control, port handling operations and much more in Kuwait. 

Our 37th Transportation Group under the 143rd was responsible for providing all of the truck convoy transportation of supplies and equipment being moved into and out of Iraq (except fuel hauling, which had been contracted out to civilian Kuwaiti contractors). The 37th Trans Group was also responsible for the gun truck escorts of each convoy. I was on 14 convoys in Iraq during my year of command.

The 37th Trans Gp had hundreds of 40-foot flatbed and Heavy Equipment Transport Trucks (HETs) on the roads in Kuwait and Iraq every single day. Each convoy averaged 30 trucks with three gun truck escorts. Improvised explosive devices in 2005/2006 (during my command tour) were thick on the highways in Iraq.  

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We lost six Soldiers and two Airmen on convoys in my year of duty who were killed on convoys as a result of those IEDs. I've been to all of their graves: Army SSG Michael Mullen, Army CPL Bernard Ceo, USAF Sgts Brian McElroy and Jason Norton are in Arlington National Cemetery. Army SGT Brian Connor and Army SPC Sam Boswell are in two separate cemeteries in Baltimore, Md., Army SGT Andrew Wallace is buried in Rippon, Wis. and Army SPC Michael Wendling is buried in a country Lutheran Church cemetery just outside of Mayville, Wis. 

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Seven of the eight were gun truck crewmen. SSG McMullen was an M-915A3 (Freightliner) driver. He exited his truck and ran to another truck in his convoy, which was on fire from an IED explosion, to pull the driver out of the cab and roll him to extinguish the flames on his clothing. In doing so, SSG McMullen was hit by a second exploding IED and severely wounded and paralyzed.

SSG McMullen, a mobilized Army National Guard Soldier and civilian firefighter from Salisbury, Md., disobeyed standard operating procedures of staying inside his armored cab of his truck when ambushed, dismounted his truck, ran TO the burning truck in his convoy, and saved the life of his fellow Soldier. We all agreed it was firefighter's instinct to run to the fire. 

I recommended him for the Silver Star Medal, our third highest medal for valor, which was approved. Sadly, he died four weeks after being wounded at the Walter Reed Medical Center, having been medically evacuated to Baghdad, then Landstuhl, Germany and then to Walter Reed.  

I think of them every day. Their dogtags that I carry on a key ring remind me of their deaths and their efforts at helping Iraq to know freedom. I'm not sure we succeeded in that but our men and women, military and civilian, sure tried.  

So your words hit me as being right on target and so direct. I hope the rest of your reading audience agrees.  

Very respectfully, Charles J. Barr, Major General (Retired), U.S. Army, still farming

*****

I asked Mag. Gen. Barr if I could use his story for this blog, but wanted to be respectful of the families of those who died. Here is his response:

Thank you for your rapid reply. I got a little carried away with my email to you but I am passionate about those great Americans we lost on convoy operations in Iraq. By all means, you can use my email. We must not forget those men's names.  

Sadly, I had just sat down and eaten a supper meal in one of our camp dining facilities in Kuwait with Corporal Bernard Ceo and his friends less than a week prior to his combat death near Taji, Iraq. I'll never forget his polite and gentle manner. He was a black Soldier who must have weighed 300 lbs. and looked like a defensive lineman for a pro football team. His arms were as big as my legs.

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The two airmen killed on one of our convoys might seem strange to you. However, by 2005, the Army was running out of transportation Soldiers, i.e., truck drivers. They converted an entire Field Artillery Brigade from Fort Sill, Ola., into truck drivers. They did a superb job for us, despite some of them sorely missing out on doing their "cannon cocking" duties.

The Secretary of Defense also ordered other services to fill the truck driver shortages. So they rounded up hundreds of USAF personnel from all around the U.S. Air Force bases worldwide, put them together, sent them to an Army convoy training site, blessed them as ready to go, and sent them over to replace one of our departing Army truck units headed back to Germany. 

Most of the US Army Reserve and Army NG truck units had already been called up since 9/11 and many were on their second mobilizations. (I was on my second mobilization in less than two years.) Therefore, the Air Force personnel, including women, came into our command. In fact, that USAF unit was commanded by a very competent female Captain. Tough as nails. 

Sergeants McElroy and Norton were killed when their gun truck was hit by an IED and burned. Their three-inch-thick armored doors were locked from the inside with deadbolts. We had these installed on all of our trucks and gun trucks because the insurgents had developed a tactic of grabbing service personnel out of their vehicles when they slowed down in some areas. 

Sadly, their buddies in other vehicles in the convoy could not get the doors yanked open with the egress chains and they were consumed by the fire. It was so intense that it took the Army several weeks to try and ID the bodies. I was told that even their "dog tags" melted (stainless steel). They were killed Jan. 20, 2006, and buried in May 2006 in the same casket in Arlington Natl. Cemetery in the section with other crews who are buried in a single casket for that crew. They are very close to our space shuttle Challenger crew and a B-24 crew discovered in New Guinea many years after WW Two. 

Their remains were never positively identified as to who was who. Pretty gory, I know.  A photo of one of their widows appeared on the front cover of my VFW magazine shortly after they were buried. She was quoted with words to this effect:  "They trained together, fought together and died together and now we have buried them together." What a sad thing—but appropriate.

I wholeheartedly agree with you about the jerks who are rioting and spreading hate and discord in our cities. I told my wife that I served to protect and defend our Constitution and those people have a right to kneel in protest during the Star Spangled Banner. But I don't agree with their kneeling and disrespect for our flag and those who defend it. None of the service personnel under my command ever knelt when our flag was honored.  

Keep that old 30-30 oiled, close by and ready to use.  Very respectfully, Charles Barr

*****

“None of the service personnel under my command ever knelt when our flag was honored.” The burning and destruction in our cities, “professional” athletes kneeling in disrespect of our flag. Those are the things and people who get the media attention.

Thank you, Mag. Gen. Barr, for telling the stories of six brave and true Americans. Indeed, we must honor and remember them and all of those who served and fought, and those who gave their lives in defense of the greatest country the world has ever known.

 

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