A Grady baby and lifelong member of Saint John the Wonderworker Orthodox Church, Joe Roden moved with his family from Atlanta to Conyers when he was 14 years old. By age 17, Roden already aspired to join the Army.
"Mom wouldn’t sign the papers," Roden said. "But after I unintentionally put a stove propane tank in the burn barrel with an ensuing explosion that rocked the whole neighborhood, she agreed to sign."
Roden requested the infantry. After basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., his next port-of-call for advanced training was The Mountain Post (Fort Carson, Colo.).
"There I was, a Georgia boy in waist-deep snow," Roden said. "I’d laugh when someone slipped on black ice and busted their butt, but then I’d slip and bust mine."
The mile-high elevation of Colorado has always been tough on smokers, and Roden was no exception.
"We had 30 days to adjust," he said. "Shoot, as a smoker, I’m not sure I ever did."
Assigned to Charlie Troop 1-10 Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division, Roden qualified as a driver of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, mastered the 25mm canon, machine gun and tow anti-tank missiles, completed first aid instruction and survived double-time sprints up and down mountain footpaths, including Pikes Peak.
"The only good thing after running was breakfast at IHOP," he said. "The Army is fairly modern these days."
In September 2008, Roden landed in Kuwait City and boarded a bus for Iraq.
"We had to lay down in the bus because a sniper was in Kuwait," he said. "That was a bit scary." Next stop: FOB Kalsu in southern Babel (central Iraq). Roden said the base was huge with a PX and McDonald’s. Within two weeks, Roden went on his first mission in the middle of nowhere.
Roden said his unit built up Patrol Base Mahawheel, which quickly became an IED (improvised explosive device) nightmare for American soldiers.
"Insurgents placed IEDs in sheep or an unexploded 2000 pound bomb in a dead cow on the side of the road," Roden said. "We couldn’t trust anything or anybody."
Roden mentioned the ‘Sons of Iraq’ payments. He said terrorists paid snipers, and then the Americans would turn around and pay them more to guard their roadblocks.
At one roadblock adjacent to an Iraqi police station, Roden’s patrol exited their Humvees and took up security positions.
"We’d just set up when a young kid about 13 years old shot our Lieutenant and Sergeant in the back, killing both," Roden said. "We killed the kid. Later, we found out extremist Jihadists had told the kid to do it or they’d kill his family."
His unit would show a presence, give out candy to kids; parley with locals.
"Then all hell would break loose," he said. "You couldn’t trust anybody. One local may be our informant, the guy next to him an enemy informant; some hated us, some loved us. Like I said, it was sort of crazy."
Sent to Iraq’s main port of Basra (alleged home of Sinbad the Sailor and proposed location of the Garden of Eden), Roden had the unpleasant duty of patrolling the Iraq/Iran border.
"You could see thousands of acres of concertina wire and land mines left over from the Iraq/Iran War," Roden said. "You followed in your buddies’ footsteps for safety. That was scary, plus we were humpin’ with full battle rattle in 135 degree temperatures. Talk about hot!"
His schedule included guard duty, three-day treks to Iraqi outposts, back to Basra, back out the next day to do the same thing.
"We received a lot of rockets and mortars, plus a lot of IDF (indirect fire)," Roden said. "You become indifferent, not afraid of dying or you’ll get yourself killed. You have to accept it."
Roden received a two-week leave after eight months in Iraq.
"I came home and tried to relax," he said. "I went snowboarding in the Tennessee Mountains and promptly broke my collarbone. When I returned to Basra, they assigned me a ‘sitting job’ so I couldn’t deploy with my unit. That was rough. I had to watch my buddies go out and I couldn’t join them. They were my brothers; I’m supposed to be with them."
Roden finished his tour in the field with his buddies. Then they boarded the Big Bird and flew home.
"We were laughing and cutting up," he said. "We discussed girls, talked about getting drunk and staying together for the rest of our lives. It didn’t turn out that way."
Back at Fort Carson, reality reared its ugly head. There were suicides, guys were mustered out of the Army for marginal infractions; many soldiers went wild.
The transition was tough and Roden said the soldiers were given little to no time to adjust.
Roden concentrated on his next assignment — sniper school.
Trained with the M-24, a Remington 700 bolt action rifle, Roden mastered camouflage, range estimation, target detection, who or who not to shoot, proper breathing, elevation and complete stealth.
After considering his options, Roden chose not to re-enlist.
"To be honest, I didn’t want to go back to Iraq," he said. "I’d seen enough killing. You know, I’m 23 now and even I know that the wolf is at our front door, not over there; it’s right here.
"I don’t know where my country is headed. I worry about that."
Asked about his transition to civilian life, Roden said, "I’m good. I read the Bible every day. That’s my strength."
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website at aveteransstory.us.