by Crystal Gottfried
“It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.” -- Father Dennis Edward O’Brien, Chaplin, USMC.
Last March, the Times Guardian opened a special story with this quote. The article was a special acknowledgment about a young soldier, Army Sgt. Brandon J. Rodgers, from Canyon Lake, a graduate of Smithson Valley High School, whose photograph appeared in the January 9 issue of U.S. News and World Report.
Brandon, the son of Sharon and Mike Bryce of Canyon Lake, was photographed while on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, where he has been stationed since August 2005.
In an online interview with Brandon and his mother shortly after the photograph was published, he explained the circumstances surrounding the picture.
“We were on a normal patrol and the reporter was riding in my vehicle. We stopped and dismounted to talk to the local nationals and when we finished, we loaded back up and there was a large crowd of children and adults gathered up beside our vehicles,” he wrote to us. “We began to throw out Beenie Babies®, soccer balls, muffins, and candy to them and apparently she took the photo sometime during this encounter. I believe she was trying to show the good we are doing and not just the bad that seems to be reported more often.”
“The best part about going out on missions is when you see the children on the side of a road and you can wave at them, throw them some goodies and seeing their faces light up with excitement,” Brandon wrote via e-mail.
“I meet many people in Iraqi who are happy that we are here and that we have made a huge difference in their lives,” he continued. “They shake our hands and thank us all the time.”
“Just by being here for just over six months, I‘ve seen a huge change for the better,” he wrote. “People here just want to get the insurgents out.”
The Times Guardian has kept up with Brandon through the year and recently heard from his mom, Sharon Bryce, that he was part of the 172nd Stykker Combat Brigade, out of Alaska, that was in Mosul and was supposed to come home by the end of August.
“Brandon was one of the 3,700 troops held over by President Bush’s announcement in early August,” Sharon told the Times Guardian. “He was supposed to return to Alaska around the middle of August, and had called us to tell us some of his plans. He was looking forward to coming home to Texas for a long deserved visit.”
“Brandon said that he couldn’t be specific about when he was leaving but Mike and I knew it was supposed to be by the 30th,” Sharon said. “Then a day later he sent a message telling us to be prepared – he’s not coming home just yet.”
“He’s been there for a year already, and ten months now without so much as a day off,” Sharon said. “We are just crushed. Those guys are exhausted and emotionally spent already.”
In February 2003, right after Brandon enlisted in the Army; he sought the help of his high school English teacher, Cricket Ingraham, to write a Valentine’s letter to his mother, telling her what he felt he needed to say before he left for boot camp.
The letter was published in its entirety in the February 19 issue of the Times Guardian, and according to Sharon, has become a treasured revelation of her son’s beliefs and values.
“There are many people at Canyon Lake who mean so much to Brandon,” said Sharon. “They send Brandon and other soldiers ‘care packages’ and prayers; those gifts mean so much to the guys over in Iraq; and it means a lot to Mike and I as well. Even though we don’t always know who you all are, we thank you.”
Brandon expressed his appreciation to the people at Canyon Lake last March, and now his mother is busy making plans to help others at Canyon Lake be a part of expressing their appreciation to our military troops, like Brandon, who are still in harm’s way.
“I was told about a Freedom Walk being done in San Antonio on September 11 to pay tribute to those lost that day and for all the lives changed since then and to honor our troops so valiantly fighting the acts of terrorism,” Sharon said. “I contacted several people asking them to walk with me that morning and Patti Johnson, president of Canyon Lake Republican Women, was one of them. She readily agreed to walk with me, but then had a brain storm and we’ve decided to do our own walk here at Canyon Lake.”
Brandon shares his Iraq experiences in these Times Guardian articles to bring awareness to what happens over there. He wants people here to know that there is so much good being done and that the soldiers still need the support of the nation.
“I really just want people to support all the troops and to realize that these guys are here fighting to keep American families, friends and people we don’t even know, free from terrorism,” Brandon wrote last March. “Yes, times get rough over here but what keeps us going is that everyone back home is able to be happy, to live free and be able to reach their fullest potentials.”
“To anyone who is reading this article, please remember all the soldiers who have fallen during this war,” he wrote.
In an e-mail to his mother two weeks ago, Brandon indicated that he was over the disappointment of his extended tour of duty.
“We were extended because our unit had accomplished so much in Mosul and they knew we could do an outstanding job down here,” Brandon wrote. “None of us liked being told 2 days before going home that we were staying an extra 120 days but the fact is that we are soldiers and we volunteered for this job.”
“We have to do it for the American people and the Iraqi people. Granted, not all the Iraqis want us here but we still have to control the violence. It is better to fight over here than have the fight on American soil. It is all ok because I know that what I am doing [right] now may not be immediately noticeable but, in the long run, our efforts will make a difference, hopefully, more so for the American people.”
“I can say that I am proud to have been extended because someone high in the chain of command thinks that highly of us and what we have done thus far,” Brandon concluded. “So if you speak to anyone [Mom] just express about how proud you are of all of our troops!”
Brandon thanked his parents, and his other “Canyon Lake parents,” who have stood by him and helped him become the man he is today.
Now his mother is helping the Canyon Lake community return that thanks.
“The walk on September 11 should be a moving and patriotic event for all of us who have been touched by the 9/11 disaster,” Sharon said, “especially those of us who feel so strongly about supporting our troops.”