It was a mistake not to give our soldiers a chance to share what they’d seen during America’s wars – a mistake that Paul Fanning, himself a veteran and a board member on the Friends of the New York State Military Museum, is not going to let America commit again.
“Any one of these service members has a story,” said Fanning, who brought a group of seven New York National Guard members together Saturday, March 24, to share their personal stories from Iraq at the New York State Military Museum. “What I wanted to do is to drill down and try to expose to other people what these men and women are really like. Because these guys shouldn’t be forgotten for what they did, and we all can learn a lot from what they experienced first-hand.”
Fanning invited each guard member up in front of the audience to share their stories with those in attendance. By Fanning’s side was Congressman Chris Gibson, who took turns with Fanning as they asked the soldiers to describe what they had seen and experienced.
For First Sergeant Joseph Martel of Albany, a member of the 105th Military Police Company, Operation Iraqi Freedom began when he was first deployed in 2003. Martel was tasked with escorting over 40,000 vehicles during the rise of the insurgency, an ever-evolving force that presented its fair share of challenges.
“Back then, ‘IED’ hadn’t even entered the lexicon,” said Martel. “We were always having to adapt on the battlefield. We were way outside the manual – it was totally different from what we were initially trained for.”
Fanning noted that Martel’s unit suffered the first two causalities for the New York National Guard, a difficult milestone for the group to pass. And yet Martel and his unit banded together. They too evolved their tactics against the insurgency, outsmarting and outmaneuvering a force with home field advantage until, eventually, the tides of war were turned.
“Whether you agreed with the war or not in terms of its justification, very tremendous contributions were made by people who you may be walking past or standing next to in the market. You just would have no idea that these guys are there, carrying these stories,” said Fanning. “These guys were ordered, they reported for duty, and they did what they needed to do.”
For Saratoga native and Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Green, doing what needed to be done meant tending to the sick and wounded in the National Guard’s 466th Area Support Medical Company. That meant not only treating U.S. and collation forces, but oftentimes Iraqi civilians and even Iraqi insurgents.
“Insurgents were usually shocked that they were getting medical treatment alongside U.S. forces,” said Green, who returned to Saratoga Springs where he now works as a dentist. “Because we were just trying to do the right thing, insurgents often started providing helpful information as a result.”
It’s these stories, like Green’s, that help civilians understand the subtleties and complex challenges of war – stories that those of us who were not there first-hand have a difficult time even conceiving.
“I’m afraid that most people have a very superficial understanding of the Iraq War,” said Fanning. “And that’s true across the board; that’s kind of normal. But when you get an individual like those we had on stage – it’s like the old proverbial onion. They have many layers, and when you look at the differences in their stories, you come to appreciate that.”
The New York National Guard is a historically unique group of men and women, Fanning rightly pointed out. Unlike many other Americans – or American service members – the New York Guard is one of the only organizations to have gone from ground zero in New York City to the mountains of Afghanistan; from the deserts of Iraq to the streets of Baghdad. That includes Sergeant First Class Melchiorre “Luke” Chiarenza from Clifton Park, who began combing through the rubble of the World Trade Center with his unit before deploying with the “Fighting 69th” Infantry in 2005 to Iraq.
“When we got there,” said Chiarenza, “we would go into the neighborhoods and speak with the civilians and find out what their needs were. We looked for solutions, and using our expertise from our civilian backgrounds – contractors, electricians, plumbers – we would try to get things working again.”
Eventually Chiarenza and his unit would tame what became one of the most dangerous roads in the world, the Baghdad Airport Road (aka “Route Irish”), a contribution that helped American forces and our allies gain the upper hand during the Iraq War.
The stories continued – with more depth and detail than can be contained on these few pages here. Still many other stories went unheard, stories from soldiers not able to attend this first meeting. But Fanning hopes that, one day soon, these soldiers will have their own chance to share what they’ve seen and experienced with the public. With any luck, Fanning plans to make these events a regular occurrence – both at the Military Museum and beyond.
“Every one of these guys is a book. Every one of them. The more you get engaged with them, the more you understand that they’re very, very human, mostly very ordinary. But they’ve gone through extraordinary efforts to arrange their lives and develop such skills that can deliver the results America needs,” said Fanning. “We want them to tell their stories now, not decades later. Otherwise people will sweep the Iraq War behind them, they’ll get all caught up with the national elections, politics, the economy and all that. But here we have these guys – all those guys on Saturday still wearing the uniform. They’re still on duty.”
And their stories are still worth hearing.