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Guardsman home from Iraq

October 03, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

HEDGESVILLE, W.VA. - Trepidation greeted Staff Sgt. Derek Brown when he stepped off a plane in Kuwait in February.

"You get off the plane and you have no idea where you're at. You don't know if you're in a hostile environment. You're pretty scared at that point," Brown, 23, said Friday afternoon, two days after he landed on American soil after serving for more than seven months overseas.

Brown is a vehicle operator with the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard, based in Martinsburg, W.Va. He joined the Guard in May 2000 because of the college-assistance program.

Although he knew in the back of his mind that it was possible, he said he didn't expect to be injured in the war on terror.

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"You never think it'll happen to you," he said.

On June 28, Brown and his close friend, Staff Sgt. Brad Runkles, also of Hedgesville, were part of a convoy crew escorting supplies. They were with the U.S. Army.

As the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) gunner, Brown said his job was simple: "We're intimidators."

He never had to fire the gun, but he was a victim of hostilities. He, Runkles and the rest of the convoy crew were going about 60 mph as they escorted tractor-trailers carrying supplies such as food, water and other necessities.

Buried along the side of the road was an improvised explosive device, or homemade bomb, that detonated when the truck was about 5 feet from it, Brown said.

"Now it kind of seems like it was slow motion," Brown said.

At the time, he remembers being knocked down in the back of the truck. His forearms, neck, face and ears were burned.

All of the 5-ton cargo truck's tires were damaged. Brown said he remembers seeing the driver of the truck having blood on his face and seeing Runkles get out of the truck with more serious burns.

"That was the hardest part, really, seeing him (Runkles) like that," Brown said.

Both men were airlifted.

Brown spent about two hours with medical personnel, who slathered some cream on his wounds, bandaged them and sent him back to duty. Runkles was flown to a hospital in Texas for treatment of second-degree burns on his face and arm.

Neither man has any obvious scars.

In Kuwait, Brown trained for six weeks on how to drive in convoys and to familiarize himself with weapons, which are used more frequently in the Army than in the Air Force.

He then went to Tikrit, Iraq, where most soldiers lived in tents.

"We lucked out and got a building," he said.

Temperatures were around 100 degrees when he arrived and 137 degrees when he left.

When asked to recall good moments that happened overseas, Brown hesitated and said there were few. Those few included working with fellow members of the 167th, which he said is a top-notch unit.

Brown graduated from Hedgesville High School in 1999 and, with financial assistance from the military, completed an electronics and computer engineering technology program at the National Institute of Technology in Cross Lanes, W.Va.

Along with his part-time Guard duties, Brown works as an electronics engineer in Winchester, Va.

When Brown first enlisted, he did so for a six-year term in a pre-9/11 world.

Brown said he was "a little nervous" after the terrorist attacks, but he called the 167th's base and talked to someone who didn't think anybody would be deployed.

When he learned he would be shipped out, Brown knew he'd be working with the Army on convoys, but didn't know he would be providing security.

"We didn't know what we were getting into," Brown said.

Air Force members generally stay on bases where there is little danger.

Overall, though, Brown's brush with combat turned out well. Nobody was killed or suffered life-threatening injuries.

"We all came back in one piece," he said.

He said he would encourage others to consider joining the Guard.

"The 167th's been nothing but good to me," he said. "Even though there's a chance someone would have to go over there, I'd highly recommend it."

Terrorists must be fought one way or another.

"It's better to fight them there than at home," Brown said. "I'm against war myself, but the job's gotta get done."

When the end of his original six-year commitment comes around in 2006, Brown doesn't expect to hang up his uniform.

He said he and Runkles both intend to stay in the Guard for at least another 25 years.

"We're lifers out there," he said.

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