The grandfather of the locally-based Bravo Company is retiring after a combined 37 years in the armed services.
Snellville resident Staff Sgt. David Bankston is an old hat in the military, who helped his younger brothers in arms younger by providing them with long-term perspective and keeping them in line. They listen to him because his white hair is accompanied by a calm, kind demeanor and a wealth of stories.
Bankston has guarded the de-militarized zone along the North Korea-South Korea border, coached football at Fort Benning and worked with the Covington-based Blacksheep as they trained Afghani police and National Army troops.
“I’m going to miss the camaraderie with my buddies and my platoon sergeants, all the way down to the privates. Because of my experiences, I can relate to them all,” Bankston said at Saturday’s National Guard awards ceremony and luncheon at the Covington Armory.
“Troops are very impatient people and having so many years of experience, I was able to teach patience … I’m kind of like the granddad or dad of the unit. I’ve been everywhere with these guys from Georgia to Afghanistan and developed these close ties. If things got unruly, I could step back and stay calm.”
That’s part of what makes Bankston such a good teacher and coach in his private sector life. He taught physical education and coached at Salem High School for years, but recently switched to Rockdale County High School.
However, his most recent time with the Covington-based Blacksheep unit, the name is based on the old Black Sheep Squardon TV show, was a particularly proud time for him.
“We’ve done a lot of missions and been successful at every one,” he said.
“I love you guys. Thank you,” he said at his retirement speech.
Bravo Company members received a total of 21 awards Saturday afternoon, including four Bronze Star Medals. One medal recipient was Spc. Jason Hewitt from Forsythe. The five-year National Guard veteran has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart for being wounded in service.
On that fateful day, his truck ran over not one by two improvised explosive devices.
“The first IED knocked me down off the gun turret and the shrapnel cut my cheek. Normally an IED is followed by an ambush but nothing happened, so after a few choice words, I got up and we kept going,” Hewitt said. “Then we ran over a second IED and I got knocked out.”
Luckily, Hewitt injuries weren’t overly serious and he escaped with a grade three concussion and some abrasions on his arm. Hewitt was one of two Purple Heart recipients from Bravo Company along with Spc. Joshua Cravey. Capt. Shilo Crane said his company was fortunate to come home with only two injuries.
“We were lucky. I have to credit the NCOs (non-commissioned officers); they harped on the solders to always wear protective gear. That helped a lot,” Crane said.
Hewitt said the most difficult part of working in Afghanistan was the language barrier and the difficult terrain and climate conditions in the country. Bravo Company had a two-pronged mission to train Afghan police in peacekeeping tactics and to train the Afghan National Army in how to go after high-value targets and clear routes and rooms in buildings.
“Working out in the field was toughest. Tough on the body and the mind. We had no telephones, computers and no showers. We’d come back to base every 25 days to shower,” Hewitt said. The group would often walk six to 10 kilometers on foot in one day.
Though he was injured, Hewitt and others were lucky to escape with nothing more serious.
One day, Hewitt’s platoon was set to go on a route, when they heard an explosion. A group of goats had walked on the same path the troops were planning to take and triggered an IED.
Crane said it’s hard to know whether the months off on-the-ground training with the Afghans will pay off, but he feels his troops did everything they could to help the country.
“We don’t know effect we’ve had; it will take years to see fruits of labor,” he said. “The Afghans need to take ownership of their country. We need the Afghans to be out there with us patrolling and we need them to be the ones taking the lead.”