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Harlem Guard Unit is Prepared for Iraq
By: Herb Boyd
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News
Originally posted 4/7/2003

FORT DIX, N.J. (NNPA)—Military personnel here wear two types of uniforms: One is the regular dress, what veterans used to call a camouflage outfit, and the other a sand-colored uniform. When the soldiers are issued the latter, which is intended to blend with the sand of Iraq, it means their deployment is imminent.
Members of the 719th Transportation Company, a National Guard unit based in Harlem at the armory, are still dressed in regular garb, waiting for orders to be sent to Iraq.
“We were activated back in January,” said Lt. Patrick Williams, a platoon leader and a graduate of Wilberforce University with a major in computer science. “There is no way to determine when we will be deployed. But whenever that day comes, we’re ready.”
In a way, ever since World War I, the unit has been ready. As part of the legendary 369th Infantry—the “Hellfighters,” which evolved from the 15th New York National Guard Regiment—members of the 719th can rightly claim some of the unit’s courageous heritage.
During World War I, the Hellfighters withstood 191 days of withering fire from German forces and never conceded an inch of territory. For their bravery, they received a number of Croix de Guerre, the French’s government’s equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross.
“I know the history of this unit very well,” said medical specialist Sgt. Thomas Williams, a Harlem resident, who like most of those gathered for a recent interview, is a qualified driver of light and heavy vehicles. “I used to teach that history to the cadet corps, reminding them of the outstanding tradition of the unit and what they had to live up to. Because of racism at their camp, they had to be shipped overseas before they finished basic training. They had to complete training in their backyards.”
Williams, a 16-year veteran, said such is not the case now. “We’ve been highly trained and we’re ready to go now that we’re up to strength.”
At 169 troops, the unit is at full strength. “But if and when we’re deployed, I don’t think we’ll be in harm’s way,” Williams added.
Even so, Specialist 4th Class Rowan Richards, one of 27 women in the company, is wary of the danger. “That’s something you know you may have to face once you join,” she said.
And how does she explain that danger to three children?
“I try to assure them that I’ll be OK, but I don’t think they really understand. I know my oldest daughter is a little bit confused.”
Of those assembled, only Sgt. Robert Martin, 37, has actually been in a war zone.
“I was part of Desert Storm,” he said. “I was one of the youngest squad leaders in my company, and with all the responsibility I had, it was necessary for me to keep a good frame of mind all the time.”
Martin said his motivation for joining the army was to avoid the array of wrong paths before him growing up in Harlem. “I joined when I was 16 years old,” he recalled. “My mother had to sign for me.”
One of the things he enjoys most about being in the military is the camaraderie, “the chance to make friends and get to know people and to share your experiences.”
Is there anything that troubles him about this second tour of the Middle East? “Well, the first time it was about getting the Iraqis out of Kuwait, which we did. This time it’s a lot different since the objective is to take Baghdad. We never went this far into Iraq the last time. It could be messy.” Williams said he was a little afraid about going to war, but that’s part of his mission now. “There always a certain amount of fear,” he asserted.
Sgt. Derrick Wallace chimed in that “we can’t let that bother us too much. When you put this uniform on, you have to expect that as part of your duty. That’s where the training comes in.”
Acquiring training, getting an education and travel were mentioned most as reasons for joining the military. “Being in the Army has given me an opportunity to meet other people and get some skills,” noted Richards, a native of Antigua. She said she had experienced no discrimination and no abuse during her two and half years in the unit. However, she had taken a cut in pay from her regular job since being activated.
When asked about the antiwar demonstrations, Sgt. Maurice Mangra and others agreed that they were not affected too much by the outcry.
“Many of them have never been outside the United States to see how others live,” he said.
Wallace agreed. “Americans tend to take too much granted,” he observed. “Our mission in Iraq is to give the people there some of the same freedoms we have here.”
Williams, who has nine children, said, “A lot them don’t understand that it could have been their son or daughter in the World Trade Center. Even the demonstrators ought to know that what we’re fighting for gives them the opportunity to speak their minds.”
The soldiers were similarly in accord on the “fragging” incident, when an African-American Muslim killed and wounded troops in his own battalion several days ago.
“We have Muslims in our company, and that’s not a problem,” Martin offered. “You have to deal with people on an individual basis, not because of their color or religion.”
Is the group ready for Iraq? “Yes,” they said almost as one.
The next generation of Hellfighters lack none of the fire and commitment of their glorious predecessors. They are ready for those other uniforms.

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