Soldiers return home from nation of Georgia

COVINGTON - Soldiers with Company B, 1/121st Infantry of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade based in Covington returned home from a training exercise in the nation of Georgia on Aug. 2, just days before the Russian military launched an attack there.

The soldiers enjoyed their time in the former Soviet state and had no inkling there was trouble brewing, First Sgt. Patrick Eaton said.

"While we were there, there was nothing afoot. There was nothing to indicate to us there were issues or troubles whatsoever," Eaton said.

Georgia, a former Soviet state, sent troops into the breakaway republic of South Ossetia last Thursday, aiming to crack down on separatists who want independence or unification with North Ossetia, which is in Russia. Russia responded Friday, sending troops into the Georgian province where it had peacekeepers stationed.

In Georgia, Russian tanks rolled into the strategic city of Gori on Wednesday then pressed deeper into Georgia territory, smashing a European Union-brokered truce designed to end a six-day conflict that has uprooted 100,000 people and scarred the Georgian landscape.

There were reports the Russians could be headed to the nation's capitol of Tbilisi, which is near Vaziani Military Base, where local troops trained.

It all seems far removed from the peaceful visit the Covington unit enjoyed there less than two weeks ago.

"The Georgians were very, very hospitable. We made some good friends over there," Eaton said, adding the unit has had no direct contact with the Georgian military since the attacks. "What we hope for is just peace and safety for everybody involved."

More than 300 Georgia National Guard soldiers participated in the training exercise known as Immediate Response 2008, including 89 soldiers from the Covington armory.

The exercise is run by the Southern European Task Force of the U.S. Army based in northern Italy.

Soldiers train on basic skills such as small arms marksmanship, live fire exercises, medical training and interoperability, Eaton said.

The Guardsmen slept, worked, ate and played sports side-by-side with their Georgian counterparts.

"As is the case with American soldiers throughout history, they quickly broke through the language barrier," Eaton said.

The temperature was typically in the high 90s, with the sun up from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and no shade.

"Everybody got a pretty good suntan," he said.

Some troops also got an illness similar to dysentery but all have made a full recovery, he added.

It was the first trip outside the country for some of the soldiers, and good preparation for combat, Eaton said. The 48th Brigade will deploy to Afghanistan in summer 2009.

"I was thankful it was a pretty rigorous and demanding deployment for three weeks, and it helped us out," he said.

The combat training is more difficult to come by for Guardsman, who meet just once a month and have more civilian duties placed on them than for the full-time military, Eaton said.

"This really stressed the importance of preparing mentally, physically and emotionally for what lays ahead. It was a wake-up call: There's more of this coming, so get ready," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.