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Bashur airfield Iraq

Airman 1st Class Angel Aguila, a security forces troop from the 86th Security Forces Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, guards an entry control point at Bashur Airfield, Iraq, on April 14, 2003. In the background, Marine Corps CH-46 and HH-53 helicopters, which are beginning to bring 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines to the base, taxi for takeoff.

On March 26, 2003, I joined 953 other soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on a night-time combat parachute jump into Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq.

The plan was to do exactly as we trained to do dozens of times before: jump out of the bird, hit the ground, and form a perimeter around the airfield. What we didn’t fully understand was that the drop zone we were jumping into was a huge mud pit.

The mud was so bad it took 15 hours to get the brigade assembled. That was about 15 times longer than we expected.

Over the next year I would learn a lot about the men and women who serve in our military. We faced a complex combination of combat operations with civil-political engagement. We lost good friends and saw others horribly injured. But through it all, the endurance, ingenuity, and professionalism of those I served with was inspiring. None of us returned home the same person that landed in the mud a year earlier.

Four years later, I started working for Sen. Max Baucus, advising him on defense and veterans issues. As one of my first projects we started a fellowship in the office for other Montana veterans to bring knowledge and experience from combat to help make things better for vets here at home.

Our first fellow, Charlie Cromwell from Missoula, was a platoon leader in Iraq and braved the dangerous highways outside of Baghdad. He was concerned about the growing number of jobless vets in Montana, so he helped draft a new tax credit for employers who hire vets. With Max’s backing to get it through Congress, the president signed the measure into law in November 2011.

Our second fellow, Troy Carter from Sidney, spent a year deployed to Iraq as a squad leader. He wanted to make sure America wouldn’t face the same strategic picture that led us into Iraq to begin with. While on board in Max’s office Troy helped draft legislation that would give the Pentagon long-term contracting authority to buy made-in-America fuels like camelina to reduce our reliance on foreign oil and create jobs back home.

Our third fellow, Maureen Porter from Havre, worked on gathering intelligence while serving with the Marine Corps in Iraq. She was concerned about reports she had read that vets with PTSD were having difficulty getting access to service dogs to help them adjust from a life of combat to life back home. So she worked on legislation to make it easier for vets to access service dogs.

And most recently Max welcomed, Jonas Rides at the Door from Browning, who served multiple tours in Iraq, including the difficult battle of Fallujah. Jonas focused his work in DC on improving veterans' access to mental health care.

Ten years after we invaded Iraq, if you find four veterans you probably get four different views on the war. But most every vet I've met has one thing in common: Our mission of serving this country is not over. We believe in taking care of each other, and we take our citizenship seriously.

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Andrew Person of Helena was recently awarded the Montana National Guard’s Patriot Medal for his advocacy on behalf of the Guard. Person is now a law student at the University of Montana in Missoula. Montana veterans interested in the Defenders of Freedom Fellowship should contact Baucus’ office by visiting Baucus.Senate.Gov.

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