It’s hard to imagine that United States forces have had some kind of military interaction with Iraq since 1991 and Desert Storm.
Hard to imagine, that is, unless you are Staff Sgt. John Quarles, a full time Tennessee National Guardsman. Unbelievably, Quarles has been on five deployments with different units overseas.
Four of those assignments have been in the Middle East.
Quarles’ first overseas deployment took him to the region with Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when US forces successfully pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait after he had invaded that country in 1990. His last deployment to the Gulf area with the 1171st Transportation Company of the Tennessee National Guard, based in Dresden and Tiptonville, was almost 20 years later. He returned to Tennessee in December 2010 and is currently assigned to the unit in Dresden.
For his multiple deployments, he was awarded a Defender of Freedom plaque by the Tennessee National Guard, honoring guardsmen who have served more than three deployments. Quarles says of the soldiers in the unit returning home in December, he had the most deployments. Previously, he received an Army Commendation Medal for service.
Besides his last overseas stay in 2010, he has been involved in three other assignments for Operation Iraqi Freedom, since 2005.For one of those tours, he received a combat action badge. He also served in Kosovo.
An engineer laying asphalt on roads, a transportation expert dealing with trucks, a relief worker in two hurricanes, Gustav and Ike, a recruiter. These are all jobs that Quarles has filled with relish in his three years of active duty with the army, his year in the army reserve and his over 20 years with the Army National Guard. Half of those years have been as a full time guardsman.
But another job that Quarles values highly is an unofficial one. He says that because he has been to Iraq so many times, soldiers who have served in Iraq, and those who are about to go, often seek him out for fatherly, “even grandfatherly” advice.
He is quick to encourage those who look troubled to seek the many avenues of counseling that are available to them. “It’s our job as older guys” to offer “knowledge and guidance,” says Quarles.
“Those who have been on deployment bond a whole lot better with those who have been on deployment,” he says.
Those who have not, often feel like ‘outsiders,’ “like they have something to prove.”
But he tells them, “not to worry, your time will come.” And he reminds them that they have “nothing to prove.”
“Just drive the trucks.” Just do your job.
Concern can rise up in every soldier about to go abroad, says Quarles, no matter how many times he goes. “I’m a God-fearing man,” says Quarles but he says he gets “even closer” when he is on deployment. He warns first timers against going into new situations “thinking they are invincible,” a sure way to get hurt.
“There’s been a lot of stress through the last twenty years, “ admits Quarles. He says that when he’s back, around his home in Clarksville, he relieves that stress by riding motorcycles. He belongs to a “family-oriented” motorcycle group and drag races motorcycles on occasion. Quarles is looking forward to participating in two races in July and September. He also fishes and hunts when he can.
But Quarles is quick to credit the unsung heroes who have also endured a lot and those who have supported their military relatives abroad.
“It takes a real good person” to support a family member through all of the stress and strain that a deployment to a place like Iraq can entail, he adds.
Quarles says his parents have supported him “199 percent” through his multiple deployments.” If anybody should be receiving awards, they should,” says Quarles who credits them with keeping his morale high.
He says that when he comes back from a deployment, he usually needs a few days to himself to unwind. Memorial Day weekend is another time he usually likes to keep to himself, or keep busy working. “I’ve lost a lot of friends to a lot of conflicts,” he says. “When those flags go up, it’s rough.”
Just before this weekend however, he does look forward to celebrating his daughter’s birthday.
With retirement coming up in the next three years, Quarles anticipates more hunting and fishing and maybe pitching in more with his family’s landscaping business. Figuratively he’d like to “let his hair blow in the wind,” even though he doesn’t have any, he laughs.
But those prospects do not diminish his military experience now.
“ I love the military, “ he says. “It’s an adventure everyday. I get to see places I’ve never seen before, even in Tennessee.”
Quarles counts somewhere between 12 to 15 countries he has seen during his time in the military.
“As long as life is challenging, I’m happy,” he says.
And he is particularly proud of the uniform he wears.
“I take what I believe seriously. When I put on that uniform, I know it stands for something: All I can be and then some. When I see young people, I want them to think, ‘wow, I want to be just like him’ … It’s why I keep it on.”