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Photographer John Love was embedded with the 804th Medical Brigade from Fort Devens as they prepared for and deployed to a yearlong assignment in Iraq. This is his firsthand story about that two-week experience.

Part five

By John Love

SEATTLE — It was Tuesday morning, Feb. 15, time for the 804th to get their weapons.

They lined up for formation. Col. James Snyder had addressed them the night before, stating that Command Sgt. Maj. Hersey Henderson was going to be delayed and Sgt. Major Donald Martin would be taking over as acting command sergeant major till Henderson could join the unit.

Being issued their weapons was a pretty easy task for the morning. They were given an M-16 or an M-9 pistol, some got both. This was what they were to carry with them at all times in Iraq. They did not get any ammo though. They were not going to get that till they got to Kuwait and wouldn’t be using it till they got to Iraq. You cannot go into a theater without ammunition, I was told.

After that it was quiet for a few hours. Martin was still trying to get a flight off the ground for the younger members of the unit. At noon word came that the flight was on; it was time to find everyone who was going. We took two vans to the airfield. They were going up in a Chinook helicopter.

Many of them had never been in a helicopter, never mind one with two propellers. This helicopter is made to transport very small units. Its primary roles include troop movement, artillery emplacement and battlefield resupply.

Martin loves to fly, he said, and wanted to pass that excitement to his troops. His love of flying and the need to help the unit have some fun motivated him to get the flight in the air. He said morale is very important to the completion of the unit’s task. This was a way to keep morale up.

I was not allowed to fly with them but I was allowed out to the Chinook to take pictures before and after it took off. They got instructions from the flight crew while still on the ground, got out their cameras and got ready for their sight-seeing tour.

It was about 50 degrees that day and I waited on the edge of the runway for their return. They where in the air for about an hour and when they got back the looks on their faces were priceless.

They seemed for a moment in their own little world — smiles from ear-to-ear — talking about all they had seen, how much fun it was and showing off their photographs. Martin had been right. For that moment, they had forgotten that that night they would be heading to Iraq for a year’s tour of duty.

They walked around the Chinook, smiling, laughing and taking more pictures of each other with the helicopter in the background as if they were preteens at Disneyland. Some even sat in the pilot’s seat to have their pictures taken. Martin was a smart man. He knew this was what they all needed.

The rest of the day was spent doing last-minute packing and cleaning up the barracks. This was kind of strange because the unit was told that they were probably going to be the last unit to use them. The barracks were slated to be torn down due to their age.

But the soldiers still did their best to put every thing back in order, mop floors and clean the bathrooms. No one was going to do it for them.

Now, we just had to wait. We would be heading out to an airfield, a much bigger one than we’d been to so far.

To be continued.