HOMETOWN HERO: Soldier returns from Iraq

Tue Jul 29, 2008 - 04:50 PM

By NATE HUBBARD/Staff -- SWVA Today -Bland Messenger

Virginia Anderson’s long search is over.
She’s found her daddy.
The 2-year-old made her dad’s day last week when she spotted him in a crowd of soldiers returning home from their tour in Iraq.
“To hear the ‘I love you Daddy’ is just heart-melting,” said the proud father, Spc. Rath Anderson.
After attending a July 20 welcoming ceremony in West Point, Va., with his fellow soldiers of the Virginia Army National Guard’s 237th Engineer Company, Rath returned home, to the farm in the Whackertown area of Ceres, on July 23.
Having only seen his daughter sporadically since her birth, Rath, 31, said he was nervous that she wouldn’t recognize him when his company arrived at West Point High School, coincidentally his alma mater.
But his worries proved to be unfounded.
“She picked him out and said, ‘That’s my daddy,’” said Rath’s father, retired Lt. Col. R.B. Anderson, recalling his granddaughter’s reaction.
R.B. and his wife, Debi, bought property in Ceres in 1978 and Rath attended the old Ceres Elementary School before switching schools when his dad’s military career moved them out of the county.
Rath said, though, that even after the move the family returned to Bland County in the summers and shortly before his deployment he settled just down the road from his parents with Virginia and his wife, Michelle.
Prior to his deployment, Rath worked at Superior Paint in Bland and he said Monday that he’ll return to the job next week.
Although he’s now safely back in the tight squeezes of Virginia’s “baby hugs,” Rath had a treacherous job in Iraq.
While most soldiers did their best to avoid bombs, Rath and his platoon’s job was to seek out improvised explosive devices lurking on the roads in and around Baghdad.
The 237th Engineer Company is a “sapper” unit – combat engineers who “specialize in demolitions and light infantry tactics,” according to the Virginia Guard’s Web site.
“We do more of the blowing up than the building,” Rath said. “Mostly we did route clearance operations.”
Rath’s company arrived in Iraq in September 2007 and helped clear the way to Sadr City – a district in Baghdad – during an intense spring offensive.
“We were in a really hot place,” Rath said. “We had a lot of really hairy – just really close calls.”
Out of just more than 100 soldiers in the company, three were killed during combat and one died of an illness during mobilization in August 2007.
An article on the Virginia Guard’s Web site states that during its time in Iraq, the unit “cleared more than 16,000 miles of routes, finding and clearing more than 60 IEDs and unexploded ordnances.”
For his service, Rath received a Combat Action Badge, an Army Achievement Medal and two Army Commendation Medals.
R.B. said the Combat Action Badge specifically is given to troops who experience actual warfare.
“It distinguishes the warriors from the other soldiers,” he said.
For its work in Sadr City, the unit as a whole has been nominated for a Presidential Unit Citation – the highest possible honor for a military unit.
While Rath frankly described the dangers he faced in Iraq (“There’s going to be some risk,” he said about his job of tracking down IEDs. “Some of them are going to blow up.”) he was much more excited to talk about some of the happier moments of his tour.
During the more than 10 months that Rath was in Iraq, he said he had a firsthand look at some of the impressive security improvements that recently have stabilized the country.
He described some areas in Baghdad that were “not nice” when he first arrived that now have happy-go-luckily kids playing soccer in the streets late into the night.
He added that Iraqi kids had always waved to the U.S. soldiers’ big trucks, but in recent months he noticed parents were teaching their infants to wave at the passing troops.
“It’s a lot safer in a lot of areas,” Rath said. “We’re doing really good work over there.”
Rath initially returned to Ceres quietly last week, but the community got a chance to commend his valor on Sunday when he joined a large homecoming crowd at Trinity United Methodist Church.
He said he walked into the service a little late, but received a big welcome when the pastor stopped the proceedings to acknowledge his entrance.
“I was ill-prepared for it,” he said about the outpouring of gratitude.
Rath said he was grateful himself for the chance to say thanks to the congregation for their support, adding that touches of home, like a subscription to the Messenger the church provided, gave him comfort while in Iraq.
Overall, Rath said he was stunned at the way Bland County, Southwest Virginia and the state as a whole supported his company during the combat tour.
“The support of the community here … was amazing,” he said. “It was above what I was expecting.”
R.B. said that now that Rath is safely home he can relax and take pride in his son’s service.
“It’s a huge sense of pride,” he said.
While fully expecting to be sent to war, Rath emphasized that he started the process of joining the Virginia National Guard in 2004 because of his love for the state and his desire to serve its residents.
He said he’d heard of recruiting difficulties and got so tired of the negativity surrounding the military that he decided to do something about it.
“I heard the call that ‘Hey, we need help.’” Rath said. “I wanted to help people – that’s what the National Guard does.”
Rath plans to stay in the Guard to serve the state. Although he said the idea of another year away from his family – should he be asked to go back to war – is daunting, he said it’s something he’s prepared to do again.
“I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “I’m not looking forward to it.”
More than anything, Rath said his time in Iraq taught him that human connections can be made even in the face of seemingly insurmountable differences.
One of his favorite moments from his tour, he said, was driving in a farming community just north of Baghdad and seeing some of the same activities going on that he does on his farm in Ceres.
“They’d give the little wave that you give out in the country,” Rath said.
Nate Hubbard can be reached at 1-800-655-1406.