In one photograph, you see nothing but dense German forest; one shows oil fires in the desert, columns of white smoke like geysers; one reveals the wide and slow-moving Euphrates River. These are images from war, taken by two men who have nearly 35 years of military service between them.
In celebration of Veterans Day, and to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War, CCV hosted a forum with two Vermont veterans. Members of the CCV community gathered in the Janice Couture Community Room at the Winooski academic center to see Sergeant Bob Fitzgerald and Staff Sergeant Robbie Layton share photos and stories from their deployments with the 131st Engineer Company of the Vermont National Guard.
Bob Fitzgerald joined the Guard after graduating from Colchester High School. He spent nearly ten years in the military and served in the first Iraq war. He first enlisted for two years, during which time he was stationed in West Germany. Upon his return to Vermont, he took advantage of the GI Bill to attend UVM, where he studied engineering. And just a few months after beginning college, Fitzgerald says, the 131st was activated for Operation Desert Storm.
In January of 1991, he was deployed to Saudi Arabia, where he worked as an engineer building and maintaining roads for army convoys. During his time in the Middle East, Fitzgerald witnessed a great deal of devastation from the ground war, which began only days after his arrival, and faced hardships he only touched on in his short presentation. When an audience member asked Fitzgerald if, despite the challenges of service, he felt as though he was doing something worthwhile during his time abroad, he answered with an unequivocal “yes.” “I felt that way then and I still feel that way now,” he said. “Unfortunately sometimes things have to happen to hopefully make the world a better place.”
Twenty-five years later, Robbie Layton was deployed with the same company in the Vermont National Guard. Also an engineer, Layton worked on roads in Iraq, but in quite a different capacity than Fitzgerald had. Layton is stoic about his commitment to the armed services: “I joined the military to do whatever I had to do,” he says. A valuable thing to know about the man, given the responsibilities he took on overseas.
Layton went to Iraq as an improvised explosive device (IED) hunter. One of his first slides shows a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle—known as “the Buffalo,” it looks like a Hummer on steroids, a 60,000-pound vehicle equipped to detect bombs and withstand their detonation. When an awed audience member asked Layton what it was like to experience that, he replied, “It’s over before you realize what happened.”
As Layton spoke, it was clear that much had changed in the 25 years since Fitzgerald served abroad. “We were treated like kings,” said Layton of the living quarters, compared to the tents Fitzgerald shared with sometimes up to two dozen other men. “They took really good care of us because of the work that we did,” referring to the near-constant danger of seeking out, and occasionally being surprised and injured by, explosives. Layton served in more dangerous circumstances; “we weren’t allowed to just walk around [as Fitzgerald was] because there were snipers,” he recalls.
Contact with locals was markedly different, too: in the early ‘90s, Fitzgerald and his fellow soldiers regularly interacted with local people, sharing food and water and other supplies when they could. “They seemed positive [about our presence],” he said. Fast forward to the second Iraq war, and Layton emphasizes that attitudes had shifted. Skepticism ran high, he says. It was difficult to trust people’s motives. “But kids were always pretty happy to see us,” he added, recalling children’s excitement over simple gifts like soccer balls.
Layton also highlighted some of the work he’s done here at home with the National Guard: helping in the aftermath of natural disasters Katrina, Sandy, and Irene; bringing firewood to low-income homes in Vermont; repairing roads in southern California and New Mexico. “[There are] a lot of things this unit did that unfortunately a lot of Vermonters don’t know about,” said Fitzgerald.
Layton and Fitzgerald praised the commonalities between their experiences in the military. Both said they would go back and do it all over again. When asked if there was something they had learned, something they carried with them and applied to life as a civilian, both answered—without pause—teamwork. “That was ingrained in my head,” said Fitzgerald. “All these people ready to be a team and get things done.”
And both veterans said they would recommend military service to young men and women. “It builds character,” said Layton. “I think it defines somebody to be in the military. [It’s] here to help you, to back you up. This is a brotherhood.”