SPRINGFIELD – On the five-year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 9,000 Illinois Army National Guard soldiers and 3,700 Illinois Air National Guard personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soon, more than 2,500 more Illinois National Guard troops will be deployed. That number includes about 250 personnel from armories based in Mattoon, Sullivan and Effingham.
Progress continues in Iraq with reconstruction efforts and improvements to quality of life, but those changes do not come without sacrifice.
Sixteen Illinois Guardsmen and women have made the ultimate sacrifice in support of the global war on terrorism. Fifteen soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq. The memory of their service and dedication is not lost to those who served with them.
One of those soldiers was Sgt. Shawna Morrison, assigned to the Illinois Army National Guard 1544th Transportation Company, Paris.
“I remember seeing her around town. I helped recruit her. It was like losing a family member,” said Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Butler, with the 1544th Transportation Company.
Butler was deployed to IRaq from December 2003 to February 2005. The company was responsible for convoy security missions country-wide and was active delivering emergency supplies to Najaf when roads were “black,” which means no travel was allowed.
“You could see a difference when we were over there. There are differences being made,” said Butler, a 15-year Guard veteran and Paris native.
Butler explained the five-year anniversary is important.
“I still have a lot of friends deployed,” he said. “When I first got into the Guard, I realized that the person I was standing next to in formation was one of the guys I had played basketball or football against. I remember thinking that I used to play against the guy and I hated him, but now we are here for the same reason.”
From small towns to big cities, Illinois residents across the state have answered the call to duty to not only serve their communities, but also their country.
“There are 13 million people in Illinois and 13,000 Illinois Guardsmen, all of whom are volunteers. They are one in a thousand,” said Maj. Gen. William L. Enyart, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard. “Without their service to our great nation, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
A sense of service and patriotism not only attracts new recruits to the Guard, but also prior service members who appreciate the camaraderie and sense of duty to complete a mission.
“After 9-11, I rejoined the military by joining the National Guard,” said Sgt. Jason Drake, with the Illinois Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command, Beardstown. Drake retired from the Navy and is a six-year Illinois Guard veteran.
“I volunteered for deployment. I was not originally attached to the unit deploying,” said Drake. “There was no way my guys, who I trained with, were going to go over without me.”
Drake, a Charleston native, was deployed to Iraq from January 2005 to April 2006, and was assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry. Drake’s unit was responsible for patrol and force protection.
“I have to remind myself we’ve been there for five years. I know we did good, positive things. The Iraqis knew we were there for the right reasons. It changed my outlook on the situation over there,” said Drake.
“The children (in Iraq) loved us,” said Drake, who is married and has three children.
Though all soldiers sacrifice civilian lives and careers and the comforts of home while deployed, they do so knowing their service is a vital part of a mission to defend our nation’s interests around the world.
“The debate goes on, even after five years, but the support of the troops has never diminished,” said Staff Sgt. Samer Elguindy, with the 341st Military Intelligence Unit, Chicago.
There are approximately 550 Illinois Army National Guard soldiers and 100 Illinois airmen deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.