By Marine Corps Cpl. Ryan M. BlaichDecember 14, 2007
RAMADI, Iraq, Dec. 13, 2007 - For Army Spc. Gerald Bradner, here on his first deployment, serving at Camp Blue Diamond is not only an opportunity of a lifetime, but also a way to relate to those in his family who also answered when their nation called.
"I was brought up to believe that every man should serve his country however he can," said Bradner, 21, from Brookneal, Va. "Everyone from my grandfather all the way down to me has served when our country was at war. It's a great family tradition."
Bradner, an intelligence analyst with 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, joined the U.S. Army shortly after he graduated from William Campbell High School in 2004. His grandfather and great uncles all fought the Axis aggression in World War II. His father volunteered to fight communism in Vietnam. And today, Bradner is proud to be combating terrorism in Iraq.
"This may be the only conflict in our lifetime, and I couldn't imagine just sitting it out," he said.
The greatest compliment to Bradner's character may be when his superior officers, after knowing him only a short time, recommended he apply for a commissioning program. Up until that point, Bradner constantly questioned his future in the Army, but this deployment changed all of that.
"I didn't think I was going to like the Army as much as I do, but I really love wearing the uniform, and I like serving my country," he said.
Bradner will have to complete four years of college and earn a bachelor's degree. He will have to chose a major, which he said would be history, but he will not have to choose a university. His superiors felt he was a prime candidate for one of America's premier institutions: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Bradner will become a cadet in the class of 2012. He said this is a challenge he is eager to begin.
"I've got mixed feelings about it. I'm really nervous. I'm worried about the transition from being a soldier to being a student," he said. "I'm sure it'll be exciting."
Another testament to Bradner's unique character is the rarity and relationship his high school has with West Point. The last time someone from his high school attended West Point, Bradner's father had yet to deploy to Vietnam.
"I'll be the first person from my high school to go to West Point in 40 years. So I'm really excited about that. I look at it as an opportunity to set myself apart from my peers," he said. "Growing up in a small town, I'm glad to be able to stand out and represent my community however I can."
Not only will he stand out in his community, the ribbons on his chest will immediately set him apart from those in his freshman class. By then, he will be a combat vet, having spent more than a year in Iraq.
Bradner will enroll in August 2008 for the fall semester. West Point admits only about 1,200 students a year. About 200 each year are prior enlisted, and most have to attend a prep school first. Bradner is part of a select few who get to bypass prep classes and go straight to the academy. Only 20 soldiers are given this chance every year.
For now, thoughts of college life will have to wait. Bradner said he cannot afford to think about freshman year because he still has a lot of important work left to do in Ramadi.
Currently, Bradner gathers all sorts of information and aids in the counterinsurgency fight against al Qaeda.
"We collect information to determine where al Qaeda is maintaining safe havens and try to figure out where they are going to strike next and what we can do to prevent that," he said. "We also try to keep abreast of the enemy's latest tactics."
His role here is much more aggressive and involved than it may appear. He spends a lot of time behind a desk and speaking to leaders in the Iraqi army and police. Although the conversations are casual, the information gathered from them can have a direct impact on the actions of men with guns out in Ramadi.
"The simplest way I can put it is, an infantryman kicks in doors, but intel points at which door to kick in," Bradner said.
His deployment started in mid-January, when Ramadi was still in the midst of transition and a bit unstable. This place was still dealing with roadside bombs, sniper fire and mortar attacks.
"When we first got to Ramadi, the place was bad," he said. "We were seeing 10 to 15 attacks per day, and that was normal. Some days we'd see 20 attacks. Before we left, we conducted an operation with the Marines, and that really helped clean up Ramadi. Since then, we've galvanized the tribal leaders, and they've basically ousted al Qaeda. A lot of it is due to kinetic actions from U.S. soldiers, but a vast majority of it is due to the cooperation with community sheiks and them not allowing al Qaeda to take safe haven in Ramadi anymore."
Bradner also has noticed changes in the people of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar.
"When we first got here, the Iraqis were kind of standoffish," he said. "Now they really look at us as friends, like we're here to help and not like we're a threat or have some type of ulterior motive."
If Bradner could point to one thing about his deployment he takes the most pride in, it is being able to make a difference while he was here, he said. He said he will be able to look back years from now and feel like he was a part of the success of Anbar province. And, although he misses his family and will be spending his first Christmas away from home, he said he wouldn't change a thing.
(Marine Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich is assigned to 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.)