By Jennifer Martin - email
By the age of 21, Darrell Graf had already taken part in two major military operations with the 82nd Airborne: the Invasion of Panama and Desert Storm. He was ready for something new.
"I decided it was time to pursue my college career. So I was offered the opportunity to re-enlist through the National Guard."
He joined the 256th Infantry Brigade in Louisiana. He reclassified as a forward observer, a scout who would go behind enemy lines. He would stay with his unit, even after he moved to Mississippi in 2001.
"We started preparing for desert operations, really in 2000. It was, as a 1st Sgt, I remember getting the phone call Feb 28, 2004. And at that time, the army had not transitioned into the deployment cycle they have now, so I was literally gone by March 13, 2004."
They deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"It was a lot of counterinsurgency operations. A lot of land management operations, convoy security. Different infantry operations were our primary focus. To be honest with you, it was the toughest thing I've ever been through. You're taught in the army, selfless service, honor and you're taught all these things, but you never get to appreciate how much responsibility you have. That these men are looking to you for all the direction.
It's indescribable. The IED's, some of the explosions, some of the things. Even if you rolled up onto a scene where it just happened and you saw the casualties. It's stuck with you forever."
He would be in Iraq about a year.
"You can talk about being in a firefight or being narrowly missed. But I think what was very difficult for me and very difficult for my men were their families. The families were the unsung heroes. The wives and the worry.
I didn't have a lot of time to give to my family because I had the mentality and the personality, I worried so much about my men, that I gave them everything, but neglected to realize that my family was suffering at home."
He is moved by the respect and recognition now given to our servicemen and women.
"It's humbling. You know there's a lot you can say, but that's why you do it. You do it for other people. You serve and it's an honor to serve. And you don't want to be called a hero, because you reserve that right for the fallen.
We do what we do because we believe. And to have that recognition is both humbling and a little bit gratifying."
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