Veteran earns sense of accomplishment through wars in Afghanistan & Iraq
Published 10:42 am Monday, November 10, 2014
Wars are full of destruction. But for one local veteran, it is the building he did while serving that stands out to him.
Elizabethton resident Robert Barnes spent 22 years of his 46 with the National Guard, and those years are full of memorable moments.
Growing up in Carter County, Barnes attended West Side Elementary, T.A. Dugger Junior High and Elizabethton High School.
In 1987, Barnes decided to join the National Guard; joining the military was one of his dreams due to the large amount of war movies he watched growing up.
“Everyone has their deal about having a dream about what they want to go into,” he said. “Mine was the military, watching the old John Wayne war movies and stuff, like everyone did back in the day.”
Barnes decided to go full active duty in 1989, and found himself in Bamberg, Germany with the First Armored Division.
“When I got over there the (Berlin) wall was still up,” he said. “And we took a trip up to the border, and saw the East Border guards walk by us with their AK-47s. And about two months later the wall came down.”
Shortly after the wall fell, Barnes recalled Germans fleeing over the border in small two-cylinder cars packed full of belongings.
“The Germans were so excited,” he said. “You know, some of them hadn’t seen their relatives in a long time. If you go on the other side of the wall into the town next to Berlin, it’s almost like walking back into time. They had these little cars that had two cylinders in them, and they were coming over the border with stuff on top. They ended up banning them off of the Autobahn because they were causing major wrecks.”
After his time in Germany, Barnes was sent down to Iraq during Desert Storm.
“When I got down there, I was put with First Armored Division — the third brigade,” said Barnes. “We supported tank platoons and stuff down there. I ran a wrecker; me and a sergeant did. I recovered vehicles for the brigade. The recovery team is what I ended up on.”
Barnes said he remembers having to help transport Iraqi soldiers who had given up, because at the time the military police did not have enough room to move them.
“My unit took a hundred prisoners,” he said.
For five days, Barnes recalls not being able to sleep due to the close proximity to many dangers.
“We did some mission recoveries so close that we would go into mine fields, recovering vehicles out of mine fields,” he said. “You would go right next to a mine. So, there was some danger there. Got shot at a couple of times trying to recover stuff.”
After spending a couple of years at Fort Campbell located on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, Barnes was ordered to head back to Germany in 1993, where he spent two years.
In the wake of 9/11, Barnes was deployed to Iraq for a second time in 2003, where he helped drop off ground troops and move around supplies for the infantries.
While transporting troops, Barnes was again involved in moving captured Iraqi soldiers out of Iraq.
“They were starved to death,” said Barnes. “We had a couple of boxes of MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) left in the back, because we carried around a lot of extra food. So, we let them have a case of the MREs.”
But it was in Mosul, Iraq, where Barnes said he had his finest moments.
“The best time I had over there was working with kids,” he said. “We were dealing with trying to rebuild their schools up in Mosul. There was a village that was outside of Mosul that we went to, that had like a haystack for a school. We were able to turn it into a solid cinderblock building. We were able to hire Iraqis who were trying to get back to work. ”
Barnes recalled taking boxes of candy to some of the kids at the schools.
“We would throw candy out to them and they would be so excited,” he said.
Some of the kids would hold up pictures of Jesus, which was a way for them to identify themselves as Christians. With the current situation with Iraq and the Islamic extremist group ISIS, who took over the town of Mosul, Barnes said he worries about the kids he helped in 2003.
One thing that stands out to Barnes about his second tour in Iraq is how vulnerable the vehicles were.
“We didn’t have armored vehicles back then like you see on TV now,” he said. “My armored vehicle was a soft-top on top, with a board on top and sand bags in the bottom of a Humvee. It had the doors off the sides of it. I was also wearing light armor.”
After coming back from Iraq, Barnes worked as a deputy sheriff in Florida for years, until he reenlisted and was again sent to Iraq in 2008-2009.
He finally retired from the National Guard just last year, and today he works at the VA, helping other veterans.
“I love it over there,” Barnes said. “There is just so much history over there, and I just love being able help the gentlemen who served way before me.”
Barnes says Veterans’ Day is a day for him to honor all of his fellow soldiers who served with him, and those who did not.
“From George Washington all the way to today, to me Veterans’ Day represents all of them,” he said. “You can’t sacrifice anything for this country like the veterans have, and their families who had to support them.”