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Twenty years have passed since U.S. Army reservists with the Galax-based 424th Transportation Company served in the Gulf War, but the troops that were deployed still remember it like it was yesterday.
They are left with the lasting impact of the good and the bad, and memories of the strong bonds formed in the seven months they served in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait.
A reunion will be held this Saturday at the U.S. Army Reserve Center on Armory Road for those that served in the 424th during Operation Desert Storm.
“It was 20 years ago this month that we returned from war,” said Treva Jones-Bryson, an organizer of the event who was one of 11 females out of 169 members of the company. “When I got together with some friends around Easter, we talked about how great it would be to see everybody. Some we haven’t seen since the day we got back.”
Jones-Bryson has worked at the reserve center for 15 years and was able to use her networking skills to locate 127 of the 130 local members that were deployed with the company.
About 60 soldiers and their families plan to attend. The reunion will honor the soldiers who have passed away since returning home, and a slideshow presentation will recall their times together.
To Jones-Bryson, it’s going to feel more like a family reunion.
“You can’t go to war without some sort of bond,” she said. “When you spend time depending on others for your life and live every single day together, when you’ve laughed and cried together, you develop a love and bond that goes beyond blood — it’s deeper. We went through hard times, but good times, together.”
When the company stepped into Saudi Arabia for the first time, Jones-Bryson remembers the dry heat and being out in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by desert.
“Stepping off that plane was a scary feeling,” said Jones-Bryson, who was 25 then and on her first deployment. “I didn’t know what we were headed into... But, the people made it so much easier.”
During her time served, women were not treated as equals. It was the first war where women had served alongside men in combat, and Jones-Bryson said many male soldiers didn’t feel the war zone was a place for females.
However, the good far outweighed the bad, she said.
“If I had to go again, there would be no reservations, because I couldn’t have gotten a better group. It was about caring about something other than yourself... Everyone cared about you. They kept you out of harms way.”
When Jones-Bryson was deployed, her daughter was only eight years old. “It’s scary to go off and leave your family,” said Jones. But after just two weeks of preparing and training to go off to war, she began to feel a disconnect with her family.
“You go from being a mom and a daughter to being a full-time solider,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t relate to my family anymore, because I was no longer paying bills and taking care of my daughter. You get a new family, and you have others that are there comforting you when times are hard.”
When Jones-Bryson returned to the United States after serving seven months in the war, it was such a shock that she put 10,000 miles on her car within a month.
“You spend time preparing and gearing up for the war, and then you’re thrown back into society,” she said. “And I had been a driver for all of those months, so when I came back, I drove to Florida, North Carolina, Ohio — driving and driving and driving, which became therapy for me.
“I would leave for a one-day trip and end up being gone a week. It was strange, but it was what I had to do.”
Despite being excited to see her family, they felt like strangers to her when she came home. “When I returned, I was reaching out to the people I was deployed with. Being deployed becomes a part of who you are for the rest of your life, and it takes a few years to come back to reality.”
Her daughter had been an honor roll student before Jones-Bryson left for deployment. Being gone had such an impact on her daughter that it took counseling and several years for her to get back on the right track.
“You lose a connection,” she said. “Even when I was in Saudi Arabia, you had to stand in line for hours at a time and pay a small fortune to use the phone.”
Jones-Bryson said her family would mail her the newspaper often. “I always wanted them to send me the sales papers, even though I knew the sales would be gone by the time I returned, just so I could have that connection.”
She had always wanted to be in the military, so she joined the U.S. Army Reserve in order to have the best of both worlds — spending time with her daughter and defending her country.
“Soldiers and their families have to give up a lot to defend our freedom,” Jones-Bryson said, of joining the military. “It is the blood of our soldiers that keeps us free.”
This weekend’s reunion, she said, is going to be emotional and joyous. Some are traveling from as far as New York, California and eastern North Carolina to attend.
Most reservists went their own way when they returned to the U.S. “but even though you don’t see them that much, you still call them your friends,” said Steven Burnett, who plans to attend the reunion. “It’s hard to explain, but you build a bond and become close friends with each other.”
Being stationed only 16 miles from the Iraqi border, the company was always on edge, he said.
“You rely on each other. He’s got your back, and I’ve got his,” he said. “If something happens, you rely on them to throw on the dressing to stop the bleeding.”
Burnett left the day of his daughter’s sixth birthday. Back then, he feared not being able to see his daughter again.
“I had to do what I was trained to do,” said Burnett. “When I was 17, I was sworn to defend the constitution.”
When Burnett first arrived to Saudi Arabia, it was a numb feeling. “There was no downtime to contemplate what was going on. I know I had a job, and it had to be done.”
Since then, Burnett has served more than a year in Iraq, when he was deployed in 2003 after the U.S. began military action again.
He retired from the reserve in 2005 and now works part-time as a security guard from Wytheville Community College at the Crossroads Institute.
Tony Hall said being in this type of situation created friendships that surpassed any other.
“You had to count on them for your life,” said Hall, who works as an orderly at Waddell Nursing Home in Galax. “And then when you return, you count on them in them in your civilian life.”
Hall, who was 28 when he was deployed, recalled the sacrifices that were made, when he left behind his 1-year-old daughter.
“When I returned, she had forgotten who I was,” he said. “It seems that they are never as close to you in comparison to being there the whole time. It seems that deep down, they know that you were gone.”
Back then, the Twin County area provided so much support, sending care packages and shipments of food and personal items. “And that meant a whole lot to us,” he said.
Sand storms were so bad that the sand would blast the paint off of vehicles, said Billy Sexton, who also served in the Vietnam War before being deployed during Operation Desert Storm. Trying to withstand the storm, transportation company members would sleep in sleeping bags and truck beds.
“The biggest problem was getting fed properly,” said Sexton. “We didn’t get hot food.”
But, morale stayed high “because we had good bonding, and we had to depend on each other... When things went wrong, we had to stick together.”
Sexton, who was deployed to the Gulf War at age 55, had a wife, a daughter in college and a son who had his own family at that time. The transportation company was only allowed to call home for five minutes at a time. He contacted his family every two weeks for five minutes.
“Most of all, I missed church,” said Sexton. “You don’t realize the value of going to church every Sunday until it is taken away from you. It leaves a big void.”
However, company members supported each other. “It was necessary to cling together like glue,” said Sexton. “You made a lifetime of friends. When we have the reunion, I’ll get to see a lot of friends, and I know some are gone on — that’ll be the hard part,” he said.