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COURTESY OF FIRST SGT. ROBERT JENNINGS
1st Sgt. Robert Jennings recently took some time off to visit his mother, Judy Vaughan, in Florida.
R&R trip home spans
war and disaster
I have been on R&R since Sept. 30, trying to surprise my family in Florida. The information from Iraq this week and last week has been reported by e-mail from my platoon sergeants, Sgt. 1st Class Austin Brown, of Irvington, Ky.; Sgt.1st Class Richard Woodruff, of Pompano Beach, Fla.; and Staff Sgt. Robert Ryder, of Portland, Ore.
Oct. 3 >> The police stopped a car that tried to turn around at a checkpoint. They detained two men who had an improvised explosive device (IED) inside a concrete block in the trunk. The initiation system was also in the car. At least the cops are getting better at catching these things before they are put in place.
Oct. 8 >> We had one IED in sector today. It hit the Scout Platoon south of the city, with no injuries.
Now that the word is out, I thought I would tell my friends in Hawaii about my R&R experience.
Sept. 28, 2245 hours >> I finally believe I am getting some leave because our plane just lifted off out of Kirkuk Air Base en route to Kuwait.
Forty-nine hours later, including time differences, I touched ground in Daytona Beach. After a short cab ride, I knocked on the door to the surprised look of my older brother, Bill.
He's been a big help by lending me a vehicle to get around these two weeks. After about an hour visit and a promise from him not to say anything, I took off for South Florida to surprise my mother and some old friends.
As I drove south on I-95, I was able to survey a lot of the damage left behind by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. There are not too many advertisement billboards legible, if standing at all. The further south I traveled, the further west the trees seemed to lean. You could see what 125-plus mph winds can do. There were pieces of homes littering the side of the roads, downed power lines and trees.
Blue tarps are on almost every roof. Speed limit and exit signs are snapped in half. Work crews from other states were contracted to restore utilities and clean up debris.
I remember as a kid growing up when the hurricanes used to come through. I just don't remember any this bad. I think it was the combination of the two that really took its toll on South and Central Florida.
First stop in South Florida was a Ross store. I had nothing to wear but a few T-shirts and my desert uniform. After I finally outfitted myself I was ready to start my vacation.
I surprised my mother and spent a few days with her in Stuart, Fla. The eyes of Frances and Jeanne passed over this small town just north of Palm Beach County.
There weren't too many business signs left standing and the residents seemed to be getting used to the rule: If the street light isn't working, treat it as a four-way stop.
She called the police department to see if the curfew was still in effect and we went to dinner with my little brother, Bryce, and his fiancˇe, Candice. I wanted to talk about the effects of the hurricanes; they wanted to talk about Iraq.
Over the next few days, my mother was able to explain how she worried more about me and the soldiers in Iraq than any storm passing through her area. She said that every time a soldier is killed in Iraq, she immediately prays for the soldiers she knows and the ones she hasn't met.
When I returned to the Daytona area, I was able to surprise the rest of my family and friends. I spent a few days with my father as he showed me some of the damage done to the area. We went on the beach side and my jaw dropped. The same beach where I used to drive my car was gone. A beach that attracted tourists to sunbathe and surf was under water. There is no beach in New Smyrna. The waves now crash against a sea wall and have rendered almost all the restaurants condemned because of exposed foundations. As we were driving away a sign painted on one sea wall said, "Don't Mess With Mother Nature."
My father joked and said, "They are changing the name from the sunshine state to the plywood state," referring to all the boarded windows. He also said that the new Florida flag was the blue tarp. Even through tough times, people are trying to maintain a sense of humor.
For all the people I was able to visit, you showed me nothing but the greatest hospitality. For all my friends in Hawaii, hopefully we'll be back in a few months.
God bless and aloha.
1st Sgt. Robert Jennings is deployed in Iraq with 4,000 25 Infantry Division (Light) soldiers from Schofield Barracks. He writes a Sunday column for the Star-Bulletin that began Feb. 1, 2004
. Jennings, a 20-year Army veteran, has been assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., Fort Campbell, Ky., Fort Lewis, Wash., and Camp Casey in South Korea. He is now on his second tour at Schofield Barracks. He has been deployed to Panama, Japan, Germany, Egypt and Thailand. As the first sergeant of Alpha Company, Jennings is in charge of 135 soldiers.
See the Columnists
section for Jennings' earlier dispatches.