Not long ago I ran into a sergeant from my old Army National Guard platoon. He told me that my battalion was undergoing another "movement" -- soldier slang for mobilization. While not all the members of the battalion were being sent overseas, this was the 12th mobilization since my unit had sent 135 soldiers to Bosnia in February 2000.
That first movement was a huge deal for Maryland and was on the front pages of almost every newspaper in the state, including The Post. Now, except for the anguish of the families, the 12th goes forward quietly.
When I joined the Guard 17 years ago, I recall being called, with a hint of derision, a "weekend warrior." I took the name in stride, though; military service, even in the reserves, was alien to the folks with whom I socialized and worked in Washington.
I joined the Guard because I'd been fascinated by the military since I was a kid. I like the outdoors, too, and the camaraderie of being with a team. In 1988 I felt the reserve military service would give me a sense of America outside the Beltway, good or bad.
Seventeen years ago, the folks I served with were something out of central casting: Hispanic, black, Eastern European, Asian. Whites were a minority in my platoon. Most people I met in the Guard were there for the usual reasons -- money for school; former active-duty folks getting a relatively easy paycheck and commissary privileges; folks who sought adventure. Many were quick learners -- dogged, real leaders.
When I joined the Guard, there was no war. The first Persian Gulf conflict surged and faded within 10 months. It was quiet for our unit, the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion of the 29th Infantry Division of the Maryland Army National Guard. Once-a-month peacetime duty was working in the motor pool or fixing radios or filing paperwork. The two-week stint during the summer was enjoyable to me, mostly spent in the field, tearing around some big base.
Because we could be called up by the state, our unit did every conceivable job -- searching for lost people, picking up after storms, running athletic programs for disadvantaged kids. When a blizzard shut down the Washington area, our unit was called out for a week to drive Humvees to deliver elderly people, dialysis patients and emergency cases to hospitals. Our duties significantly increased after Sept. 11, 2001.
For 14 years I was an enlisted soldier, an E-4 clerk/typist -- an "admin weenie," as I was affectionately known. Despite this lackluster specialty, I was fortunate to train with Rangers and Special Forces guys at the French Commando School in Martinique and at the Army's Air Assault School. Combined with basic training, these schools exposed me to profound challenges. Indeed, next to the photos of my family in my office are my honorable discharge, my Brevet Commando certificate and a photo of me on a rope swinging from a Blackhawk helicopter.
My three young sons and their friends now run around the backyard wearing my faded camouflage uniforms, firing at each other with lacrosse sticks. This doesn't exactly thrill my peacenik wife. But now, in wartime, those old uniforms give my sons a little cachet. By my unscientific reckoning, out of the nearly 160 parents of my sons' elementary school classmates, only two dads had been in the service.
After 14 years of rather calm duty, it was time for me to retire gracefully. But as my old sergeant reminded me, it's a different era now.
Now 144,459 Army Guard and Army reserve personnel are mobilized around the nation; 224 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds wounded.
A huge sacrifice is being made by my former comrades and the old days are gone for good -- as is, I hope, that faintly derisive term "weekend warrior."
-- Jeff Nelligan