'Just another day': 10th anniversary doesn't change Iraq vets' perspective

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

Wednesday was just another day for John Rhodes and Jesse Cornellius.
But 10 years earlier, it was anything but.
That was the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when coalition forces, led by the U.S. military, invaded Iraq to topple dictator Saddam Hussein and to find weapons of mass destruction.
The latter didn’t happen, but that doesn’t change how Rhodes and Cornelius feel about their efforts.
Rhodes was a lieutenant colonel of the Tupelo-based 155th Combat Brigade Team, which deployed to Iraq in 2005. Rhodes is now a colonel and commander of the 155th.
Cornelius was a captain in the unit.
“I hadn’t really thought much about” the anniversary, said Rhodes, who also heads the Corinth Surface Water Plant. “For all of us who deployed, it was just a part of our life, and it will always be a part of it.”
Cornelius, an agriculture teacher at Nettleton High School, was doing much the same thing in Iraq. He headed a project, Amber Waves, that was aimed at introducing new farming and animal care methods in Iraq
He, too, didn’t mark Wednesday as a special day.
“It’s just another day,” he said. “It’s another day teaching school. But it really does seem like it was yesterday we were there. Time flies.”
When the 155th deployed, Maj. Gen. Augustus Collins of Booneville commanded the 155th. Then a colonel, he now is the adjutant general of Mississippi. He commanded 4,200 soldiers in Iraq.
He told Mississippi Public Broadcasting that he and his soldiers did what they were supposed to do.
“We fight where we’re told. It didn’t matter to us,” he said. “The mission had been given to us, it was our job to carry out that mission and that’s what we did. All of the doubting and the speculation, we’ll leave that to the politicians.”
Cornelius echoed those feelings.
“If you ever heard from the people over there, what we did was the right thing,” Rhodes said. “I’m not going to get into politics. … but if you saw where they were going, they’re a lot better off now.”
The 155th was deployed in January 2005, serving in the provinces south of the capital of Baghdad, including Karbala, Babil and Al-Najaf. It began its initial return in December of that year. It was again deployed to Iraq in 2009.
Cornelius retired from the Army National Guard in 2007, but still keeps in touch with several of his comrades. He’s also reconnected with his Iraqi interpreter, “Fast Eddie.”
“He found me on Facebook,” he said with a laugh. “We talk two or three times a month.”
And while he’s proud he served his country and helped people in another, Cornelius said the experience did change him some. He learned to appreciate his life and family that much more.
“When I left, I had a 6-year-old and an 18-month-old,” he said quietly. “It took about five years for what is now my middle child to say ‘I love you. He was 18 months when I left and 3 when I got back.
“People don’t realize the sacrifices the families make, maybe don’t appreciate the sacrifices we make.”
Rhodes said the greatest sacrifices were those who never made it back.
“They’ll always be a part of us,” he said quietly. “We lost 28 soldiers, and one civilian from the Department of Defense. They gave their life for our nation. And we had several more who were injured.”
He makes no apologies for answering the call of duty and to help free a country.
“I look with great pride at what we accomplished,” he said. “We helped them with their first two free elections. … As far as today in Iraq, it’s up to the citizens over there. They’re now in position to control their own destiny.”
dennis.seid@journalinc.com