Video: Citizen soldier

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/12/2004 9:42:54 AM ET 2004-03-12T14:42:54

When Mayor Paul Bunn of Bradford, Ark., asked for a show of hands at a gathering of a sixth-grade class in the town elementary school, he was looking for more than an answer to a civics lesson. He was looking for faces that have an attachment to his soldiers.

Seven hands out of more than two dozen students shot up. Called forward, Bunn asked each student to identify his or her family member in uniform. For the uncles, fathers and stepfathers he praised each with a few words; as a “good gunner,” “great medic” and trusted infantrymen — “the man I’d want at my side.”

The civics lesson, it turns out, was about citizen-soldiers. Mayor Bunn — make that Sgt. Bunn — is joining 140 others from his county and more than 3,000 from his state in a transition that is almost complete. The change will take them from small-town life, to “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Leaving Bradford for Baghdad
Within days — and a year after the United States launched a war that ousted Saddam Hussein — the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard will be deployed around Baghdad.

They are combat soldiers. Their mission will be difficult and dangerous — patrol and security. The transformation from civilian life as a weekend soldier to full-time military life is nearly complete.

The unit, whose official mission is to provide ground forces in case the United States is ever engaged in wars on two fronts at one time, has been called on to replace regular Army units whose tour in Iraq is up.

That the mission has changed dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks comes as no surprise to unit members.

Elements of the 39th have served in recent years in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt and in Kuwait.  But now, the entire brigade has been called up, activated for 18 to 24 months. Already, the soldiers have spent close to six months at Fort Hood, Texas, training for their Iraqi mission.

Unexpected delay leaves extra family time
This week, with a bottleneck on replacements going into Iraq, the unit has had an unexpected break, an opportunity to go home for some last-minute family time. Their deployment date to the Baghdad area is delayed for a few weeks, but by the end of March they will be over there. 

"Over there" is a world away from Bradford, a small town of 800 that sits astride a busy rail line. A town where horses graze in the city limits, where there is one grocery, one gas station and one restaurant. Most of the other commercial structures date to another century and open only on Saturday to offer “indoor yard sales.” Rich it is not. Hard-working it is.

So, on his unexpected week off, Bunn, the 36-year-old mayor, businessman, husband and father of four, was teaching a civics lesson.

“I’m the mayor of Bradford,” he told the students. “Did I think I was going to get called up and have to go to war?  No. I never thought that. Am I griping?  No, I would do it in a heartbeat.”  

To a room full of young people hanging on his every word he explained that it is his duty to his nation that calls him. And his duty to help “get a grip on a troubled part of the world.” 

Slideshow: Year of conflict He equated his mission to being at the creation of his own nation 227 years ago. In fact, he told the children that “nation-building” is just “problem-solving.”

Bunn explained his belief that this is “America’s role right now.”

"We are building a nation to be democratic — like America. Are we going to be able to do everything for them? No. But we are going to go in and help them — to give them security. So they can return to the job of building their own nation.”

Sacrificing family and business
After class, the mayor talked about the cost of his deployment on his family and business.  

He has left his insulation business in the hands of others, cutting back on the number of construction jobs they accept and losing thousands of dollars. On the family side he knows he’s lost unrecoverable time with children who range in age from 10 to 16.

But the civics lesson looms over everything Bunn says today.

Back in the class of sixth-graders, his own daughter and a niece sat looking uncomfortable as Bunn talked about being captured and almost losing his life once in the Panama campaign and about the prospect of not bringing everyone home from Iraq.

But it’s not about the potential for casualties, he told the children, nor about weapons of mass destruction nor the oppression of Saddam.

“It is about giving the Iraqi people the chance to enjoy” what the children enjoy each day. "It’s about freedom.”

Ron Blome is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Bradford, Ark.


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