“I started my military career as an infantryman with 101st Airborne Division In 1995,” said veteran Bob Blackburn. “When my enlistment ended, I transferred to Bravo company, 216th Engineer Battalion, Ohio National Guard.”
The Armory was located in Portsmouth, Ohio, which was close to home for Blackburn. He was assigned to the 2nd Platoon, where he quickly made friends. Over the next few years, Blackburn married and started a family with his wife Jennifer, continuing his work in the military.
But things changed after 9/11.
All military branches began preparation for Operation Enduring Freedom and later, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“In spring of 2003 my unit was in Panama conducting some humanitarian missions when the U.S. started bombing Iraq,” said Blackburn. “We knew our time would be coming soon. When I got back to the states I found out that my wife was pregnant, due sometime in October. We had my youngest son on Oct 31st and in December were notified of activation to Title 10, meaning we were now on active duty and a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan was imminent. We still operated out of our Armory in Portsmouth but it wasn’t ‘part-time’ anymore.”
Blackburn was promoted to Staff Sergeant and took the 2nd Squad Leader position. In January, the group left home for Pre-Mobilization base at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.
“We spent the next month undergoing intense physical training, advanced rifle marksmanship, heavy weapons training, land navigation and Platoon/Company training. We had to be validated by Army Observers to qualify as Battle Ready. This Training really brought our Company together and started weaving the bond that we would later find to be unbreakable. While at Camp Atterbury we learned that would be deploying to Kuwait sometime late winter and then into Iraq.”
Blackburn left behind 6 inches of snow for 75 degree weather in Camp Virginia in Kuwait.
From there, Blackburn was put in charge of leading his convoy from Kuwait to Tikrit, Iraq, a grueling 600 mile, two day trip.
“I will never forget crossing the Kuwait-Iraq border. The reality really set in and we knew it was going to be a life changing event. We made it to our home away from home at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Speicher just north west of Tikrit. We were occupying a vacated Iraqi army base which had hardstand buildings. It was nice to know we had some shelter at night. Our platoon spent the next few weeks at FOB Speicher. We spent time improving our living conditions and acclimating to Iraq.”
Soon after, Blackburn’s platoon leader informed him that he would be taking half the platoon to FOB Caldwell, near the Iranian border to conduct Engineering Operations for a few months.
“We would be providing security for our heavy equipment operators and transporting them
from point A to B. We packed light and started preparing for the movement,” Blackburn explained. ” My group spent the next few months moving our operators from FOB to FOB. The operators were repairing entry/exit points, building berms and placing concrete barriers to improve security at the Forward Operating Bases. Our group spent a lot of time outside the wire but we always maintained a strong sense of security. We had some small arms engagements and the insurgents loved to launch rockets and mortars at night. Our biggest fear was IEDs, because you just never knew.”
According to Blackburn, being on guard constantly put a strain on their minds and bodies, but they stuck together, and looked out for one another.
“We were family then and still are,” he said. “After our time at FOB Caldwell we returned to FOB Speicher to regroup and prepare for our next missions. My platoon was split again and my group was deployed to FOB 7. We occupied the recently deceased Qusay Hussein Estate just south west of Samarra, Iraq. Here we would create an FOB to support troop staging for the retaking of Samarra, later to come. We completed fortifying the FOB and then the Iraqi National Guard starting occupying part of FOB. They would be part of the Campaign to rid Samarra of the insurgency.”
Blackburn recalls one particular night during this time, where things got dangerous.
“One night we playing cards and a younger soldier said ‘I can’t believe that they haven’t attacked us yet’. Not two minutes later mortar shells came raining in and we spent the remainder of the night patrolling our area to ensure it wasn’t more than indirect fire. The mortars had been hastily fired and no one was hurt thank God, it just reminded us to not get lax.”
Shortly after, Blackburn and his platoon returned to FOB Speicher and spent the remainder of their time conducting logistical operations, patrols, route clearance and internal work at the facilities within Speicher.
In March of 2005, Blackburn finally returned home.
“Our families, friends, communities and country greeted us with respect and gratitude. During our time deployed a lot of boys became men and girls became women,” explained Blackburn. “We learned so much about ourselves and others. I’m grateful to have had the experience. I know my family struggled with my absence but the group I deployed with were truly outstanding Soldiers.”
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