As we remember our fallen heroes this Memorial Day, no one knows the sacrifices they make more than their fellow soldiers. And the commanders who lead them into battle, like Third Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. William Webster.
Our Mike Manhatton's followed Gen. Webster and the troops to the Middle East several times, and had a chance to sit down with the general recently to look back on the deployment to Iraq.
This is one of the last times we'll hear from the general as Third ID commander. He's moving on to another command in Colorado this summer.
But he takes with him memories of a community and a command he'll never forget.
"It seems like just the other day we were together in Baghdad," he said.
And back in September, when the Third Infantry Division was about half way through the challenging deployment to Iraq. We spoke then of the mission to come, but now the Marne Division is home, and the general can look back, proudly, on their accomplishments.
We see car bombs and insurgent attacks. He sees progress.
"The reality was that we conducted about 800 offensive operations a day," he said. "That included patrols, logistics, combat patrols, coordinate search operations, detainee operations, traffic control points. And the vast majority of those operations were conducted without any violence at all.
"And when there is a car bomb, it is so vastly different than what happens here, and so vastly different from what the average Iraqi has been experiencing during the day, that it makes the news. And it's unfortunate that that is all our people here at home see. Cause there's so much positive going on in Baghdad. Yeah, it's a violent place. Yes, the war is still going, but our servicemen and -women and the people that are contracted to help them are doing amazing things to help the Iraqi people get on with their lives.
"When we arrived in Baghdad, there was only one Iraqi Army Battalion on the street, fighting at the time. And by the time we left, there were 22 battalions out there helping us secure the city. We have turned over 60 percent of the city to the Iraqi Army to provide security, and they're doing that.
"We spent $2 billion between us and the unit before us in Baghdad to restore essential services. And there were people, literally over two million people who had fresh water in their homes and in their neighborhood playground areas and schools for the first time ever. And that means doing it from scratch, providing water purification units and pipes to bring that water to the people, while still conducting a war. There are things like that, the dozens of medical clinics that were opened up and staffed. Thousands of schools that were reopened and the dozens of kids who came to thank us every day because of what we were doing, giving them their schools back. It's just a shame that up to now, these terrorists want to continue to kill and maim people, and do it in the name of God. That's what's tough."
This Memorial Day, Gen. Webster fondly remembers one Iraqi who paid the ultimate price trying to work with American forces to rebuild his country.
"For instance, Maj. Gen. Moghdur, who was killed later by a sniper, volunteered to take command of the Sixth Iraqi Army Division. He's already commanded two divisions before that, one of them under Saddam and one of them since 2003. He volunteered to come back and do it again. From a very lofty and safe staff position. Because he felt like he wanted to help his neighbors and the people in his tribe understand the democracy and the freedom that he had come to see in working with us. He was a very brave man who led his soldiers well, his people believed in him and talked about him daily, and he was murdered by a sniper shortly after we left."
As the general remembers a former foe, now fallen comrade, this Memorial Day should have special meaning for us all.
"Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen remember every day their fellow servicemen and -women who have given their lives in defense of our freedoms, but the average person doesn't do that," noted Gen. Webster. "The time to pause and remember that those freedoms that we're enjoying on Memorial Day itself and throughout the year were guaranteed by those men and women who sacrificed their lives for us in the past. It's a time to say thanks to veterans everywhere and a time to remember that freedom is not free."
Now Gen. Webster and the division are home from the war, a home they truly appreciate, even more.
"And we knew during this last deployment that our family members would be safe and secure and taken care of and supported by the people back here," he said. "And that gave us increased confidence to be able to do the jobs along the lines of operation that we talked about earlier, not just combat, but all those other things that had to be done, that our soldiers had never been trained to do, but stepped up to the plate and did so well."
Gen. Webster's replacement, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, should be heading our way in the next few weeks. Gen. Webster says he's briefed Gen. Lynch on what Webster describes as the tightest relationship between the military and the community he's ever seen.