FORT BENNING, Ga. –Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans from the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division gathered at the National Infantry Museum March 24 to reconnect with Battle Buddies, share stories, and kick-off a reunion lasting the weekend.
Retired U.S. Army chaplain Lt. Col. Raymond Folsom, who led planning for the event, said it was a chance for veterans with shared experience to reconnect.
“We deployed as part of the invasion force in 2003, stayed there until 2004 and came back,” he said. “So we’re getting together after 20 years and there’s stuff that we uniquely shared, and now we’re seeing each other again.”
The chaplain recalled that most members of the brigade had little real-world experience conducting operations. “Most were green,” said Folsom. “So it was an experience (where) we were highly sensitive to what we were doing.” He continued, saying the application of tactics in the combat environment was shocking because it was so different from the training environment.
Part of dealing with that shock was entrusted to him. As a chaplain, he was responsible for providing the emotional and mental relief other members of the unit could not. “They’re able to feel free to share things with me that they would not have shared with other people – their humanity, instead of their superhero mentality,” said Folsom.
“There’s camaraderie that they have that I never get to be a part of, because I don’t have a weapon or I’m not laying down in a fox hole with them,” said Folsom. “But then the other part of it is: what they don’t share there, they share with me.”
Folsom said he hoped the reunion and reconnection would be a chance for the participants to help each other get through life. “This is an effort for them to touch base with somebody else that might be able to help them through a tough spot,” he said.
“It’s very surreal, it’s an incredible event,” said Jeff Gilbert, a unit veteran attendee. “We have so many experiences and emotions tied to that time period in our lives,” he said. “We come back here and some of it’s kind of therapeutic in a sense, (we) talk out some of the things we went through, our experience together.”
“We haven’t seen (each other) in the 17 years since we left,” said Michael Taylor, one of the members of Gilbert’s company during Operation Iraqi Freedom. “To come back and see how much we’ve grown, see how much our lives have changed since then and rebuild that bond that we had back in the desert, you can’t beat this.”
Another attendee, Phillip DuVerney echoed Taylor and Gilbert’s sentiment. “I hoped to see all my friends from back in the day,” he said. “I’m glad I came.”
“It’s a fantastic event, and I feel very happy and fortunate to be a part of it,” said Gilbert.