Local soldiers talk Iraq at open house

Published 5:53 pm Tuesday, April 7, 2009

View more photos of the National Guard’s Open House in Greenville by clicking the following link:

National Guard Open House

Sgt. 1st Class John Robert Foster spent 15 months in Kuwait. Sgt. Wendell Tolbert spent 12 months in Iraq.

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Both men, members of Battery B 1/117 Field Artillery Unit based in Greenville, said it’s an experience neither will forget.

“It’s a whole new world…a whole different ball game,” said Foster, a 31-year guard veteran who’s from Luverne but has lived in Butler County for 18 years. “Everybody doesn’t realize how good they have it until you leave home and go over there.”

Tolbert, a 1987 graduate of Greenville High School, has half the service time of Foster (16 years), but his tour in Iraq left an equally unforgettable mark.

“It’s kind of rough…you see some things you’ve never seen before,” he said. “It’s something you’ll take with you for the rest of your life and leave you having trouble sleeping. People dying. Blood. Knowing that some people who’s over there is not going to make it back.”

Tolbert, married with two daughters, called it “culture shock,” a shock that stays with guardsmen even when they’ve returned home to the United States. Soldiers, he said, are trained to constantly be on guard in Iraq, especially for persons carrying packages or sacks because of the suicide bombers.

“When I got back here I was still on my guard,” said Tolbert. “Just going into Wal-Mart and seeing people toting bags out was hard. You get trained for that and then when you get back here it’s tough.”

Capt. David Simmons, unit commander, said 79 personnel serve in the unit, 25 that are from Greenville. The guard held an open house on Saturday in hopes of attracting potential recruits. Soldiers demonstrated firing missions with the howitzers and had small arms on display.

Simmons said recruits who join the guard are usually attached to a unit near their home of record.

Tolbert said familiarity with fellow guardsmen, who meet monthly for training, breeds a sense of “family togetherness.”

That’s a good thing, said Tolbert, especially in a combat situation.

“We’re just one big happy family,” he said. “When you go off to a place like Iraq, you need to have someone you depend on. I’ve known most of these guys here for 16 years. I know we’re all going watch each other’s backs.”