By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Ask Maj. Rob Edwards what Sept. 11, 2001, changed in his life and he quickly answers, “everything, everything, everything.”
A member of the Mississippi Army National Guard, the Tupelo police officer and millions of other “weekend warriors” were thrust into full-time warfare that has spanned 10 years and two foreign countries.
Guardsmen have been on the front lines of the war against terror ever since terrorists crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon that day.
War began in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and also in Iraq in 2003. Since then, 863 reserves or National Guard troops have been killed nationwide. These troops make up 45 percent of the soldiers serving in the wars and 18.4 percent of the total deaths.
Edwards has traded in his two weeks a year and one weekend a month status, as was the norm for the National Guard, for two stints in Iraq battling insurgent forces. One man gets all his credit for that drastic change.
“Osama bin Laden changed my military life and my family’s lives,” said Edwards, a member of the Guard since 1993. “Instead of my usual routine as a guardsman when I did a weekend a month and two weeks a year, I, along with millions of others, were now thrust into active duty. Weekend warriors turned into everyday warriors in a foreign land fighting an enemy we hadn’t prepared for.”
As a member of the 155th, Edwards had to leave his wife, Kimberly, and three sons – Mitch, 15, Bryant, 12, and Zac, 10 – for two deployments that lasted more than three years, including training. Before the events of 9/11, Edwards said the worst thing a guardsman had to deal with was leaving home to help with an occasional hurricane, flood or tornado.
“I can honestly say I didn’t see us having to go to Iraq before 9/11,” said Edwards. “We did our jobs and did our jobs well as guardsmen prior to that day. But after that happened, the guard became a huge operational asset for the military. There was no guard and then active military, we all became active.”
The National Guard had performed an important role in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but that conflict was short-lived.
Like her husband, Kimberly Edwards did not foresee him roaming through deserts looking for enemy soldiers when they first got married. The daughter of a retired general, Kimberly Edwards was no stranger to war and military operations. So she had a good grasp on what it meant to be a guardsman and that meaning didn’t include her husband leaving the family for two-year deployments to fight foreign enemies.
“When Rob was commissioned into the U.S. Army in 1993, I never thought 18 years later I’d be talking about the effects of 9/11 and him having to be deployed to Iraq,” she said. “Rob’s first deployment came as a shock. With just a few days before Thanksgiving in 2003, he was told to be in Canton the weekend after the holiday. It was a terrible blow that stunned our family. While we knew that deployment was a probability, the chaos shook us to our knees.”
Kim was left to take care of three small boys while Rob went to train for his new orders.
Like the Edwards, Staff Sgt. Jason Morris was affected by 9/11 mentally and physically. When he entered the Guard in 1993, Morris said he had no idea that 12 years later he’d be lying in a pool of his own blood in Iraq battling for his life. That wasn’t in the brochure.
Morris was injured by two car bombs in April 2005. The hit broke every bone in his neck, severely burned parts of his body, shattered his legs and caused internal injuries from large chunks of shrapnel that pierced his body. It took him a year to learn to walk again.
“Sept. 11 took the guardsman tag off and we all became Army,” said Morris, also a Tupelo police officer. “We all became active soldiers. I honestly was ready to go when those towers fell. I didn’t care if I was just a guardsman, I was going to volunteer to go and help fight. No, I didn’t expect to be fighting a war when I signed up but I welcomed it when the guard was called.”
Staff Sgt. Marty Mask, a Tupelo police officer with the 155th, and wife Tammy were also taken by surprise that Mask would have to be deployed to help fight the War on Terror. Despite the fears of having to go to war, the events of 9/11 made Mask feel more like a soldier than ever.
“It made me feel more a part of the team,” said Mask. “It was an honor to serve my country and represent Mississippi. It’s like the years of dressing out for the game but then finally it’s the Super Bowl and they put us in. It was a great feeling knowing we were part of the bigger operation.”
Both Mask and Edwards said their families suffered the most while they were away at war and both said their loved ones are what helped bring them home.
“All things considered, our families and spouses are the real heroes,” said Mask. “They are the ones who pick up the slack and carry on until we can get back.”
A simple gift from home made Edwards’ time in Iraq easier and harder at the same time. His wife and boys made him a pillowcase and sent it to him.
“It made me feel more a part of Kim and the kids’ lives,” said a smiling Edwards. “Not that I ever forgot about them, but after being away from them for so long and coming back to my room each day, the pillowcase was the first thing I saw along with the pictures they sent that I had up on the wall, and I had to smile because they put their own personal touches on it. I could feel their love from 7,000 miles away.”
But on the flip side it also brought him grief.
“It was also a sad reminder of what sacrifices my family was having to make with me being deployed for the second time. They had to continue on with their lives but they also had to pick up my slack around the house.”
Edwards, Morris and Mask all said they would not change their career paths as guardsmen, no matter how much the events of 9/11 changed their lives. As a police officer, Morris said 9/11 changed his civilian job as well.
“That day made me more aware of the dangers of the job and the fact that anything can happen at any time,” Morris said. “No one thought that would happen to us in America but it did. Now we go to work knowing that anything can happen.” Edwards and Mask agree.
When Edwards and his family look back at the past 10 years they can’t help but smile. From weekend warrior to the unexpected transition of full-time warrior, being able to tell their story is reason to enough to smile.