|Members of the Huntington American Legion Unit present the flag at the historical society meeting.|
Steve Thornton who is a Veteran of the Iraqi war spoke to the Emery County Historical Society at their November meeting.
Thornton brought a variety of items he collected in Iraq. He showed the audience Suddam Hussein money with Hussein's picture on it. The coins are given to soldiers with a handshake rewarding excellence. He displayed a prayer rug and explained his battalion was taught a lesson on prayer rugs by the Iraqi people installing air conditioners for the soldiers. He was a member of the 1457 battalion and is now in the 115th engineering group.
Thornton said, "We were placed on alert on Feb. 4, 2003. We were instructed to report on Thursday for training, but we weren't mobilized yet. We reported to American Fork and on Feb. 13 we were activated. We had 485 soldiers and equipment and over a 10 day period we gathered in Fort Lewis, Wash. for training. The guys wanted to get into Iraq, but we didn't leave until April 27 and then we spent 30 days in Kuwait, finally arriving in Baghdad on Memorial Day.
"It was hot there, in August it was 154.6 degrees and the average is usually around 120. We were from June to August without air conditioning and it was miserable," said Thornton.
Thornton described a variety of missions with which his group was involved. One mission was route clearance where they cleared areas of IE devices. These were improvised explosive devices and were constructed in a variety of ways. The enemy even threw grenades off freeways. Thornton spent six months in South Baghdad clearing IE devices.
Another mission was to secure the road leading from the airport. They went over the entire area on foot. When they found a device it was blown up in place and the sides of routes were cleared. They also operated a piece of equipment with a long arm which reached out to disarm bombs so the soldiers weren't being exposed.
During one such mission an Iraqi family pulled up in a car about the time one of these devices was set to be exploded. The soldiers stashed the family inside the armored vehicle to keep them safe during the explosion. Thornton also described times when friendly fire was a threat to the safety of the soldiers.
Another job assigned to Thornton's group was cleaning up weapon stockpiles. Hussein's men had weapons stashed everywhere in the city. Cleanup spots included schools, playgrounds, zoos and hospitals. The weapons found were put into piles and blown up by the soldiers. "Baghdad is a beautiful city," said Thornton. He presented a slide show with pictures of the missions and the city. He pointed out the contrast between the palaces and the living dwellings of the people in the city. The contrast was dramatic. Baghdad has 5 million people living there.
The group also spent time constructing and repairing bridges. Thornton pointed out that one of the advantages of the National Guard is in the scope of their expertise as civilians. Their group contained civil engineers who devised a way to replace the cables on the bridge without removing the old cables which would have caused the bridge to fall.
In one instance the men built a foot bridge over the Euphrates river out of old abandoned tanks. The natives even shuttled their cattle across the bridge. The native people were overjoyed to be reconnected by a bridge and one couple was married on the other side of the bridge.
Another project they were involved in was clearing the tunnels leading from the airport. Hussein had 20 palaces in Baghdad and each one had tunnels leading to the airport. The men found each tunnel and mapped them and they also found caches stashed in the tunnels. In tight spots robots were sent in to explore the area.
Projects also included blast protection and small arms protection where bunkers were constructed. They also dealt with logistical matters and worked to make things safer in the encampment. They constructed concrete bunkers to store the fuel tanks within and spaced these out so if they were hit, they wouldn't lose each tank with the fuel inside.
Baghdad has 40 police stations and the group worked to protect them by surrounding them with dirt bunkers. The enemy kept a close watch on these operations and always tried to interfere so the crew would mix up the days and locations of where they worked to confuse the enemy. Thornton said they drove 30,000 miles around Baghdad erecting these barriers.
In building roads they discovered that down about 12 inches the sand turns really hard and concrete like.
They participated in building an Internet cafe building to house the computers. They also worked on a morale tent where movies and church services were held. Thornton said his group did not see a lot of active duty. They wanted to have an induction ceremony while there so the commanding officers told them they needed to build an arch. They built the arch with a circular saw and hand painted the emblems. "We had a very talented unit," said Thornton.
They were also given the job of renovating a building to be used by the Iraqi National Guard. They did this renovation project in conjunction with local Iraqi contractors.
Another thing the unit was involved with was in making the living areas better for the next unit. Thornton and his men escorted trailers from Kuwait to Baghdad for the next unit to live in, although the whole time Thornton and his men were there they lived in tents and they placed insulation on top of the tents for shade.
When the United Nations building was bombed with a cement mixer in August of 2003, Thornton and his unit went in to do the cleanup. They became known as the 911 battalion because they were always called in on an emergency. They always had a backhoe and a loader ready to go at a moments notice. They started watching CNN because they always reported when a blast had occurred even before the battalion received official notice. So, they were out and rolling before the call came in. "The army couldn't figure out how we got there so fast," said Thornton.
They also participated in the burning of the old currency, because Iraq was working to install a new money system in the country and getting rid of the Saddam money which was also used to fund the insurgents.
They aided in the building of markets and the bulldozer was air conditioned so there were many volunteers for this duty. They also worked on building soccer fields for the youngsters.
While in Iraq they built a training facility where the units could go and practice. One especially useful training was shooting from moving tanks to maintain skills.
Soldiers had to do their own laundry by hand, but chuckled Thornton, "It sure dried fast." The soldiers installed sun showers which were used the whole time they were there. The only problem was the sun heated the water so hot they couldn't use it. They installed fiberglass water tanks and that helped. In November the temperatures are around 90 degrees in the night, but dip to 38 at night.
Soldiers played horseshoes, constructed volleyball courts and remote control car tracks. They took their meals outside and were fed one hot meal a day, but sometimes soldiers ate their MREs anyway. Thornton said the contrast between Suddam and his people was so distinct. Suddam had gold carriages and most of his people still ride donkeys like in Biblical days. Some of the soldiers decorated their tent floors with slabs of marble.
They also worked on a school during their time in Iraq. Thornton said his unit was well decorated.
They left in April of 2004 to go back to Kuwait where they cleaned up their equipment and readied it to go home. They received a phone call that they were going back into Iraq. Thornton said they would prefer to go home but they would go back. After two weeks and being away from home for 18 months it was decided they would return home.
Thornton said their unit has also built schools in Nicaragua and went to Louisiana and Florida after the hurricanes to help bury people. Thornton has heard back what a great job the Utah National Guard did in helping the hurricane victims.