Jul, 16, 2006: Why I Passed Up The Olympic Festivities For A Picnic

It was a typically hot, steamy summer day in Middle Georgia, and one I will never forget. The occasion was a parade and picnic for the citizen-soldiers of Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team and their families, courtesy of the good people of Dublin and Laurens County. It was America at its very best.

I was asked to participate in the festivities. I considered it so much of an honor that I passed up the opportunity to be at the opening of the Olympic Museum at the Atlanta History Center. I gave four years of my life to the planning of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. I almost gave up my life in Iraq. That tends to put one’s priorities in order.

It was the first time I had seen the troops of the 48th BCT since I was embedded with them last October in one of the most dangerous plots of real estate on earth — the Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad. Not so very long ago, they were dealing with the perils of war. Today, they were at the Dublin Farmers Market munching on hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream with family, friends and admirers. But their Iraqi experiences were clearly still on their minds.

Sgt. James Smith of Dublin says that on his first day at Camp Stryker, his unit was mortared by the enemy. The next morning, he awoke to find a scorpion in his buddy’s cot. Sgt. Smith realized early on that this tour of duty wasn’t going to be a fun experience. A physical therapist at Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin, Smith had just gotten married when called to active duty. His life was turned upside down. “Now,” he says, “I just want to get on with my life.”

Specialist Latasha Simmons sat with her daughter, Yazman Floyd, in her lap. “My daughter was 18 months old when I left and three when I returned,” she says. “That was hard on me.” Simmons is glad to be home, but admits she misses her comrades in Iraq. “We were like family to each other there.”

Sgt. Gary Sellers of Macon sported a Combat Action Badge, as did many other soldiers at the picnic. I mentioned to Sgt. Sellers that I, too, was awarded a Combat Action Badge after being hit by a roadside bomb while out on patrol with the troops. “How many times were you hit?” I asked. Sellers said quietly, “I have no idea. If you can remember the number of times you were hit by an IED, you weren’t on the battlefield much.” Touché.

Death was not far from the soldiers’ minds, even on this festive occasion. All of them lost good friends in Iraq. “That is something that will always be with us,” said S. Sgt. Jeffery Ruff of Sparta. So will the stultifying poverty they witnessed. They asked me to remind you how good you have it. Sgt. Steve Willis of Dublin says he still is getting used to being able to get in a car and drive anywhere he chooses. Remember that the next time you are sitting in traffic. Sgt. Michael Washington, a Georgia Power employee from Burke County, said, “The experience in Iraq changed my life. Today, I see people blinded by what they want and not appreciative of what they have.”

I wish every whiny, self-indulgent American could have had the opportunity to sit down with the troops at the picnic as I was able to do. You would discover that there are still people around willing to “ask not what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country.” My host, DuBose Porter, editor of the Dublin Courier-Herald and minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, summed it up best: “These are ordinary Georgians who were called on to do some extraordinary things, and they did.” Amen to that.

I hope my friend, Billy Payne, will understand why I skipped the Olympic festivities and opted instead to spend the day at a picnic and parade in Dublin, Georgia, with a group of Great Americans. I suspect he would approve.