Originally created 11/22/04

Thousands of Georgia Guard members prepare for Iraq



ATLANTA - At 56, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Conley is one of the oldest men in the 48th Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard.

He was awarded a Silver Star and several Purple Hearts after seeing some of the fiercest fighting in Vietnam. Now, Conley is going back to war along with thousands of other Georgians.

His brigade got word two weeks ago that it was being sent to Iraq.

About 1,200 of the brigade's soldiers, some of whom need additional training to be fully qualified in their military jobs, will be mobilized the first week of December and sent to Fort Stewart near Savannah.

The remaining 2,800 will be mobilized Dec. 15 and report to Fort Stewart the first week of January.

They will be joined there by about 500 National Guard soldiers from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island who will provide additional infantry and specialists in engineering and communications.

Conley, a high school science teacher and coach from Atlanta, spent Saturday at the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment armory in Winder for training and preparation. Few of the soldiers in his unit have seen combat, and Conley says his experience under fire will be invaluable.

In armories in Gainesville, Hinesville, Thomaston, Winder and Covington, guardsmen gathered to clean weapons, fill out wills and other paperwork and learn from commanders about when exactly they will be shipping out.

"Their ghosts are in my rucksack, the guys I knew in Vietnam," Conley said, pointing to his bag. "I can save lives, and that's why I'm going. And these soldiers, my boys, would rather go with me than anybody else."

Since the United States and its allies overthrew the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, reservists and National Guard soldiers have been rotated into the country by the tens of thousands.

Currently the military has 182,478 Guard soldiers and reservists called up for duty. National Guard and Reserve forces currently make up 39 percent of the 140,000 troops on duty in Iraq. By next spring that is expected to increase to 42 percent.

Many guardsmen said Saturday they welcomed the chance to serve.

Shawn Thompson, 34, of Acworth joined the Guard last December.

"The discipline, the patriotism - I've always been very impressed by the sacrifices the men and women make in order to have the freedom we have in this country," said Thompson, who is married and works at Home Depot.

Asked if he has any fears about going to Iraq, he said: "I'm a religious person. I've pretty much settled it in my mind, no matter what happens, I know I'm doing the right thing."