Howard High teacher returns from duty as reservist in Iraq

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Live combat is not like the movies - a lesson Army reservist Bradly Irish might bring back to his students at Howard High School when he returns to work in November after a leave of absence.

Irish, 38, spent two months in the heat of the Iraqi conflict with guns trained in his unit's direction and artillery fire overhead. The Long Reach resident returned home Aug. 26 after almost a year in the Middle East.

For 13 years, Irish was a part-time Army reservist. His most recent position as first sergeant in the 299th Engineer Company had occupied about 12 hours of his week. But that changed in October, when Irish's 170-member unit was activated to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"When we realized we were being mobilized, there was a switch that flipped in our brains," Irish said. "The switch said, 'I'm not a teacher anymore; I am the first sergeant.' Or 'I'm not a student anymore; I am now a soldier with the 299th.'"

On March 20, when missiles began to fly in the Iraqi desert, the 299th drove into Iraq. Its mission was to build an assault flotation bridge across the Euphrates River to provide the mobility needed for supplies and for troops to seize and secure Baghdad, Irish said. It was the first bridge of its type built in U.S. military history, he said.

Of course, it was no easy task.

"The first couple of hours weren't bad," Irish said of the drive into Iraq from Kuwait. "The initial shooting at the border was not that intense." But after a few hours, there were huge traffic jams, and the convoy came under fire.

"Wheeled vehicles could not drive on the sand and had to stay on a series of roadways," he said. "It was very slow going. We drove 30 hours to get to the first city," Nasiriyah.

While anxiously awaiting news, Irish's wife, Stacie, and their son Tyler Schneider, 11, received only sporadic letters.

"I was part of an online message board," Stacie said. "Everyone would report if they heard from a member of the unit so we would know everyone was safe."

The family carried on with normal life, despite the anxiety.

"That was our job: Keep going to school. Keep going to work," Stacie said. "I just started a new job the day we found out Brad was being deployed, so that kept me occupied."

His family was what Brad missed most. "My wife is my best friend," he said. "When you are in a leadership role, you have no peers. There was no one I could commiserate with. I had to keep my game face on. I couldn't cry. I was the gauge for their behavior.

"At one point we made a tactical pause. That's where we got actively engaged with the Iraqi infantry. We set up to stay for a few nights outside of An Najaf. That was when the media was reporting the worst sandstorms in the region in 10 or 20 years. We could not see a thing. They were firing at us [and] we couldn't see. About 35 hours later, [when] the storms cleared up, they were still shooting at us. They would attack at dusk and dawn.

"When you're in that situation, you don't think about home. You think about the guys you have to take care of," he said. "Of course, you are shooting back, and I was making sure everyone had enough food and water, and ammunition. With close to 200 people, you have to move around a lot to be sure everyone is OK. We did not lose one person in the conflict.

"Every morning and every evening we were being attacked. I would walk around the foxholes being sure everyone was OK. When the shooting started, I would get down in there with them. ... In the movies, your perspective is constant; in combat, your perspective is chaotic. You have to make decisions in a short period of time. You are creating the plot on the fly."

At home, friends and neighbors helped the family get by.

"People were willing to show up in the middle of the night when our basement flooded or when our furnace stopped working in the middle of the winter," Stacie said. "Squirrels kept nesting in the engine of Brad's truck and eating the wires. We couldn't keep them out. It got to be a joke - Stacie and her squirrels.

"Tyler's friends were great too," she added, "always making sure he was OK."

When the mission was completed, it was time to come home - with one last reminder that the conflict was not over.

"We left Iraq July 26th," Brad said. "On the way back to Kuwait, we were car-bombed." The 89-vehicle convoy was passing a bus seemingly abandoned by the side of the road. The bus was filled with plastic explosives and remotely detonated. The explosion destroyed two vehicles - one directly in front of Irish's truck - but no one was hurt.

"Stuff bounced off the windshield of my vehicle, cracking it. But that's it," he said.

His experience in Iraq has not changed his feelings about being a reservist. "I joined the reserves for college money," he explained. "I stayed in the reserves because I like doing something meaningful." But time in Iraq has changed his view of life.

"It made me understand a lot of stuff," he said. "I can weed out what's important and what's not. The day-to-day stresses don't seem to matter anymore. My concerns when I was there were life and death. It boiled down to simple things: food, water. I hope, as time goes on, the little stuff doesn't come flying back."

Now the family is enjoying some quiet time together.

"It's like another honeymoon," Stacie said. "We are so happy to see each other. I am so proud of what he did."

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