Aviation Brigade Commander on Iraq Anniversary

It's a solemn day for many US military families. Today is the anniversary of the start of the second US war in Iraq. One year ago today, the first bombs began exploding over Baghdad and cruise missiles targeted Saddam Hussein and his men, signaling the beginning of what President Bush called the "shock and awe" air campaign.

Within three weeks, American troops rolled into Baghdad. Iraqis celebrated in the streets and toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein.

In December, US troops found the former dictator hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit. But so far, inspectors searching the country have not found the weapons of mass destruction.

Many of our local soldiers from the Army's Third Infantry Division were among the first to cross the border into Iraq. Iraq is still on the minds of soldiers at Hunter Army Airfield today.

Third Infantry Division Aviation Brigade commander Col. Curtis Potts recalled that day: "We were doing our last precombat inspections, precombat checks and the companies were going over their battle drills one last time." Today, Col. Potts is back at Hunter, thinking back about those first days of the war.

"I knew my attack battalion would do outstanding and really, there was nothing the Iraqis could throw at us that could stop the Third Infantry Division," he told us.

The Third ID's 20,000 soldiers supported by a fleet of 12,000 were ready for action. In 21 days, under enemy fire, the Third ID stormed through Baghdad, seizing the airport and becoming the first unit to to take the city. "They step up, they do their job well," said Col. Potts. "They take responsibility for their actions and they will lay down their life for you."

Over 40 Third ID soldiers paid that ultimate price during Operation Iraqi Freedom. On April 2, six from Col. Potts' brigade were killed when their Blackhawk helicopter crashed. "I pray daily for those families," Col. Potts said.

He prays also for those still fighting, and their loved ones. "Our prayers are with their families, but we know we have to stay the course," he said. "We started this thing and we know we have to finish it for the Iraqi people."

Later this year, the Third ID will likely be called on again to return to Iraq.

Reported by: Liz Flynn, lflynn@wtoc.com