- FUN FEATURES
As a young boy Cheshire resident James Gafney would visit his grandfather, Frank Gibbs, and listen to him share his numerous war stories. Gibbs had been a tail-gunner on a B-24 in World War II and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for his service to his country.
Every time Gibbs sat Gafney down, there was a new and more interesting tale to tell.
“Every time I would visit with him, he would tell me about a Nazi he shot down, or how he bombed the Ploesti Oil Fields, or how he nearly bailed out over Switzerland,” Gafney recalls. “It was very glorious to me.”
Those stories left a lasting impression with Gafney, and, as he grew up, he, too, imagined venturing off to help fight a foe. “I dreamed about how I might fight the enemy one day as well,” he revealed.
Now, Gafney, at 40, is picking up where his grandfather left off, serving as a Major in the United States Army as a part of a transition team stationed in Iraq. Gafney, who has been involved with the military since graduating from Cheshire High School in 1988, is stationed in the country’s capital city, Baghdad, where each day he puts his life on the line to better train Iraqi police and military forces to protect their own country from violent attack.
Gafney has been on the front lines of the Iraq War since the beginning, deploying with the 101st Airborne Division in 2003, where he participated in the initial invasion. At that time, Gafney stated that he and his fellow soldiers were mostly fighting Iraqi military personnel left over from the days of Saddam Hussein. “If someone aimed a gun at us, we shot back, but for the most part, that didn’t happen.” Gafney explained. “Those battles were very isolated and mostly took place during the initial invasion.”
But since that first invasion, the enemy has “changed,” Gafney insists, and the U.S. military has been forced to confront terrorists who attack without warning or mercy.
“At least the Iraqis that fought against us in 2003 were man enough to stand up to us face-to-face, but the (terrorists), they are cowards. Their killing is indiscriminate and spineless and often ends up killing civilians,” said Gafney.
Of particular concern for Gafney is the weapon of choice utilized in battle — the improvised explosive device known as an IED. These lethal weapons can be hidden anywhere from the side of a road to under someone’s clothing, and it makes it virtually impossible to completely stay safe.
When Gafney first deployed in 2003, he served as a pilot and he freely admits, “There was no such thing as an IED in Iraq at that time.”
Now, however, Gafney is stationed at a base inside Baghdad, and the dangers are all too real.
“There is always a danger of an IED or grenade attack,” said Gafney. “The recent bombing in Abu Ghuraib was something that my unit would have been present for, but our Iraqi counterparts’ mission changed at the last minute, so, as the Iraqis say “Insha’allah (By the will of God), we weren’t there.”
But the importance of the mission, Gafney claims, is undeniable and makes the dangers worthwhile.
As a member of the transition team, Gafney works closely with his Iraqi counterparts and advises them on everything from training and discipline measures to actual combat strategy.
“The team I am on works as a conduit of information between other transition teams, coalition forces, Iraqi army, and Iraqi police. We also patrol with our Iraqi counterparts so we see what they see, and understand the information that they are receiving, so we can assist in evaluating the situation,” he revealed.
As such, Gafney routinely comes into contact with the citizens in Iraq, especially the younger children who play in the streets and fight to get a better glimpse of the American soldiers passing by.
“The children are great,” Gafney insists. “They say, ‘Mister, mister. Chocolate, chocolate.’ We have been helping hand out school supplies that our friends from back home have been sending us. The children, teachers, and principals are all very grateful. We do this hand in hand with the Iraqi soldiers.”
That kind of positive interaction does more than just offer a lighter moment to war, Gafney explains. It allows the U.S. soldiers to combat the rhetoric most commonly used by militant factions looking for recruits.
“The terrorists might tell these kids about the bad things the Iraqi and U.S. armies might do, said Gafney. “Then this kid might think, ‘I remember the Iraqi and American soldiers. They weren’t so bad. They gave me and my little sister paper, crayons, pens, pencils and chocolate. They were nice,’ and decide not to be a terrorist.”
Gafney’s current deployment began four months ago and he is scheduled to be in Iraq for the remainder of the year. The military life is a tough one, he admits, and he longs for home at times.
“I have to say, I miss Cheshire,” he admits. “I don’t get back there much, but boy, I sure could go for a Blackie’s Hot Dog and a birch beer right now.”
But Gafney credits his supportive family for making his service possible, most especially his wife Larson, who he says gives him the support he needs to make it through each day.
“My wife manages it all, from bills, to babies, to schools, to sports, to doctor appointments. She is truly amazing,” he said.
“Soldiers everyday do what I do, and have sacrificed more than I have. I ask the public to just say thank you and shake our hand. Most of us would gladly take that as payment for what we do.”