A medal for ‘Peter the Greek’ of the Guard

Antelope Valley Press - - NEWS - Dennis An­der­son

An old Army say­ing is, “Ask any sol­dier what is the best out­fit you ever served in?” and the an­swer usu­ally is “my last one.”

My last was with the Na­tional Guard in Iraq.

Be­fore de­ploy­ing to Iraq in 2003, I con­sulted Joe Gal­loway, co-au­thor of “We Were Sol­diers Once, and Young,” along with the late Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. Moore was com­mand­ing gen­eral dur­ing my ba­sic at Ft. Ord. Gal­loway was the papa men­tor that hired me into United Press In­ter­na­tional 40 years ago.

Af­ter Ernie Pyle, Joe is dean of Amer­i­can war cor­re­spon­dents. His rules for reporters headed to Iraq in­cluded, “al­ways shake out your boots be­cause crawly things like to climb in. Bet­ter yet, sleep in your boots. You never know when you have to leave in a hurry. Dress like a pri­vate and watch what sergeants do. If they duck, you bet­ter duck.”

Pyle, the gold stan­dard of World War II war cor­re­spon­dents, once wrote that you will never see so tired, dirty or hard-work­ing a crew as the in­fantry. The unit I wrote about dur­ing the first year of the Iraq War called it­self the “1498th In­fantry, Truck.”

They weren’t grunts who kicked doors and fought in the streets. They were com­bat sup­port truck­ers, travers­ing thou­sands of miles of bad road that con­cealed im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices and ma­chine gun am­bushes. They drove “Mad Max” con­voys where roads were the bat­tle­ground and trucks the tar­gets. Truck­ers haul­ing the goods humped gear, fer­ried fuel, ate dust and fought in­sur­gents like in­fantry.

Be­fore they shifted to Na­tional Guard, some were Marines and a few para­troop­ers and Rangers. There were Viet­nam War vet­er­ans. Also, de­liv­ery truck driv­ers, a dump truck op­er­a­tor, mail car­ri­ers, a casino worker and a chap­lain’s as­sis­tant.

They were G.I. Joes and Janes from River­side, An­te­lope Val­ley and Sacra­mento, mostly mid­dle-aged civil­ian sol­diers. None were trained for counter-in­sur­gency war­fare in a Mid­dle East coun­try of 26 mil­lion peo­ple who felt more in­vaded than lib­er­ated. But that is the war they got.

As the un­missed, un­help­ful ex-De­fense Sec­re­tary Don Rums­feld once said, “You go to war with the Army you’ve got.” So, no body ar­mor for the Guard. No ve­hi­cle ar­mor. No real maps. They went to war with Miche­lin guides and Wal­Mart walkie-talkies. In the “spirit of the Amer­i­can sol­dier,” as their 1st Sgt. James Earl Nor­ris used to say, they made it work, any­way.

The 1498th Trans­porta­tion Co. of the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard logged 2 mil­lion road miles, dozens of am­bushes, with more than a dozen sol­diers wounded for Pur­ple Hearts. They did it, as the Army is fond of say­ing, “by making it hap­pen.”

One who made it hap­pen was Sgt. Peter Mavropou­los, a specialist when I met him. Specialist rank is a pri­vate, first class, pro­moted. You can’t make it hap­pen with­out spe­cial­ists. He was go­ing to make sergeant E-5 rank soon. Known as “Peter the Greek,” he was in his mid-’40s and re­joined the Na­tional Guard af­ter 9/11 be­cause, he said, he “was out­raged” by the at­tacks. Peter revered the 300 Spar­tans at Ther­mopy­lae. The Army got the ben­e­fit of that out­rage and her­itage.

I em­bed­ded in Sgt. Pete’s pla­toon and rode in his 90-ton heavy equip­ment trans­porter. I rolled with him and his truck mas­ter buddy, Sgt. Doug Duhaime. With 200 sol­diers to write about, you still could only ride in one truck.

Al­to­gether, the com­pany cov­ered 2 mil­lion miles and I pub­lished 2.3 mil­lion words in the Val­ley Press. Com­mand counted the miles and an ed­i­tor pal counted the words on his com­puter.

Our story wasn’t the “big story” of the in­va­sion. It was the Joes and Janes who made the trip. A few got weary, sick or scared. Al­most all of them made it, any­way, with honor and courage. A few were in their ’60s.

That’s the Guard.

On Sun­day, the Army and Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard awarded the Mer­i­to­ri­ous Ser­vice Medal to the now-re­tired Sgt. Peter Mavropou­los. The cer­e­mony was at the unit’s home ar­mory.

Peter’s medal is usu­ally awarded to high-rank­ing non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers like mas­ter sergeants, first sergeants, sergeant ma­jors and to of­fi­cers, colonels and gen­er­als. You could say Mavropou­los is a “se­nior” NCO.

Next year is 20 years since 9/11. His re­tire­ment rank was sergeant E-5, what Ernie Pyle would call a buck sergeant, like Vic Mor­row, on the old “Com­bat!” TV se­ries.

“Peter the Greek” got a medal for do­ing it right and do­ing it so of­ten, that the pres­tige award made sense. The ci­ta­tion said his “ef­forts led to more than 4,800 sol­diers be­ing li­censed” to drive that 90ton HET beast, along with Humvees, gun trucks and other ve­hi­cles. He per­son­ally trained more than 1,500 sol­diers.

“They should have made you a staff sergeant, E-6,” his Guard buddy, re­tired SSG John O’Hern said.

Peter laughed, and joked, “They should have made me a pri­vate! My un­of­fi­cial ti­tle was ‘unit ir­ri­tant.’”

Of the medal, Peter quoted one of his Greek fore­bears, Odysseus, “In this whole world, I am just a man, noth­ing more, noth­ing less.”

What­ever rank, Sgt. Mavropou­los would have got­ten it done. His work, the ci­ta­tion said, rep­re­sented “ex­cep­tion­ally mer­i­to­ri­ous ser­vice.” Con­grat­u­la­tions con­tinue to pour in.

Dennis An­der­son is a li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker at High Desert Med­i­cal Group with em­pha­sis on vet­er­ans and com­mu­nity men­tal health is­sues. As ed­i­tor of the An­te­lope Val­ley Press, he de­ployed as em­bed­ded jour­nal­ist to the Iraq War in 2003 with the An­te­lope Val­ley unit of Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard.

SGT. PETER MAVROPOU­LOS

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