PINELLAS PARK — Florida National Guard Col. Sean Ward recently walked between transport trucks, tankers and Humvees at a storage lot for the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team's Pinellas Park headquarters.
He looked like a proud father showing off his children.
The war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan may start winding down in 2012. But all this equipment, most new or upgraded? It's Florida's to keep for hurricanes, floods or any other natural disaster that may befall the state.
The end of the war in Iraq in mid December after nearly nine years of bloody fighting is a milestone members of the brigade view with optimism. They don't talk politics. To a person, they were proud to serve there and believe the fight was worthwhile.
The by-product of repeated deployments, difficult training and equipment replacement since 2003 is that the 53rd, Florida's largest Guard unit, may be in the best condition of its nearly 50-year history, Ward said.
"Florida and its taxpayers are the huge beneficiary of this," said Ward, deputy brigade commander. "These big-ticket items will have an enduring benefit for the state."
Ward also sees it in troops' confidence and problem-solving abilities. The brigade has 3,450 troops from throughout Florida, most of whom have had multiple deployments. Brigade troops most recently returned from deployment in Iraq and Kuwait in December 2010. That was the largest Florida Guard mobilization since World War II.
At the moment, the brigade has no plans to deploy to Afghanistan in 2012.
"They're much more resilient soldiers and citizens," said Ward, 48. "They've gone out into some very hazardous and stressful situations. They answered the challenge, and they came back more mature and disciplined."
Seven members of the brigade have died since 2003 in Iraq or Afghanistan, either in combat or in accidents. And more than 100 earned Purple Hearts.
Of Iraq, Ward said, "It's just somewhere else we don't have to go because the job's done."
It's not visions of grand strategy, nation building or the ebb and flow of Iraq's big events that troops recall. It's often the small things that can bring meaning to a soldier's experiences.
Maj. Chris Buckley, 35, recalled an event in Baghdad in 2003. He had escorted an old man to pick up the body of his adult son in an American-controlled zone. The son was an Iraqi soldier killed in the U.S. invasion.
The coffin was placed in the back of a truck. As they drove away, the old man unexpectedly took Buckley's hand.
"He held it all the way out," Buckley said. "No fear, no hatred. None of that. The Americans killed his son. But he was appreciative to get his son's body back."
Buckley said he thinks the Iraqis need ample time to make their government work well. He said he doesn't fear American sacrifices being wasted if Iraq tumbles back into chaos.
"It took the United States a hundred years and we had to fight a civil war to figure it out. And we're expecting these guys to get it right in 18 months? That's just not realistic," he said.
"Without a doubt, we made a difference in Iraq," said Maj. Julio Acosta, 35.
Ward said the reputation of the National Guard has improved dramatically in two decades. Where it was once viewed by regular Army troops as inferior, its mettle seldom tested, Ward said, Guard troops today are indistinguishable from active units.
The Guard gets the same training and equipment.
"We've worked hard to get over a lot of the misperceptions through the years," Ward said. "I've seen a tremendous transformation in the National Guard, not just in Florida but across the nation. In the last 10 years, the force has really grown up."
Ward said getting rid of Iraq's brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, made the brigade's work in Iraq meaningful whatever happens now that U.S. troops have left.
"We went in there and gave it our best effort, removed a dictator who used chemical weapons against his own people," Ward said. "I think estimates are Saddam was responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 of his own people. Is that a wasted effort? No. Not at all."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]