Called back to the Corps

28 May 2003 | Lt. Col. Annita Best

Colonel Michael "Iron Mike" Williams is once again in the thick of things serving in Baghdad, Iraq, as the chief of staff for Task Force Fajr -- Arabic for "First Light" -- after living the life of a retired Marine for about three years. 

Upon retiring to his restored historical home in the Swansboro area, he did consulting work and taught military courses until January, when he was recalled to active duty and deployed.

Task Force Fajr is "a total team effort," according to Williams.

"We've got every branch of the military service represented -- regular and reserve -- and some very hard-working, dedicated civil servants from the Department of Defense and the Corps of Engineers," he said.

"Our mission is to repair the electrical power, water and sewage infrastructure, jump start the Ministry of Health in order to get medical support to all the hospitals and clinics in Iraq, and, believe it or not, jump start the Ministry of Religion, since it is such a dominant force in this country."

This work is not unfamiliar to Williams.  He made a reputation for himself in South America and the Mediterranean and, with "La Familia" at II Marine Expeditionary Force Special Operations Training Group, expanded the scope of the Training in an Urban Environment Exercises conducted in major cities east of the Mississippi River.

"There is tremendous talent in Iraq," he said.

"This is a nation of people who are highly educated, motivated, and dedicated to building a new Iraq. We just need to give them some help right now in getting over 30 years of Saddam Hussein and 12 years of sanctions - the vast majority of them are just dying to take their newfound freedom and make Iraq the 'Pearl of the Middle East.'"

He even likened a group of young doctors there to his own family.

"Since we were responsible for standing up the Ministry of Health, our team went down to a demonstration organized by the 'Young Doctors for a Better Iraq.' We walked right up into the middle of about 400 of the best and brightest of Iraq at the same square our Marines tore down the statue of Saddam.

"Instead of being nervous or concerned, I felt right at home because in their eyes I saw the same energy, idealism, patriotism, and impatience I see everyday in the eyes of my four sons. These young doctors are also energetic, idealistic, patriotic and impatient. They want it all -- now -- just like my sons, but they want it all for their countrymen!"

In addition to his various roles as the chief of staff for Task Force Fajr and the officer in charge of the Medical Support Team, Williams was the senior coalition officer to greet repatriated Iraqi military leaders, some of whom had been imprisoned in Iran for up to 22 years. These 59 officers were captured during the Iran-Iraq war.

An honor guard of officers and staff noncommissioned officers from all the U.S. services saluted the former prisoners of war, according to Williams, and their reactions ran the gamut from "being totally stunned, to abject joy ... complete with crying and kissing the ground."

To help him in this monumental task, Williams requested assistance from Master Sgt. Luis "Hurricane" Hernandez, staff noncommissioned officer in charge for the task force, and Brig. Gen. Douglas V. O'Dell Jr., commanding general, 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (Anti-Terrorism). With the general's help, along with Lt. Gen. Emil "Buck" Bedard, deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps, kicking in his clout at the right time, Task Force Fajr leaders said they are thrilled with the leadership and drive only a Marine Corps staff noncommissioned officer could provide.

Hernandez is no stranger to political turmoil, having been born in Cuba and then fleeing with his family at a young age under threat of death from Fidel Castro's military. He returned at 19 years old to rescue his grandparents and an aunt and uncle.

"Everyday when we are out and about visiting the hospitals or repatriating former POWs, people go out of their way to say 'hi,' he said.  "They come up to shake our hands and practice their English on us.

"The people we are working with are great, but I think they aren't sure what to do with these crazy 'jarheads,' Hernandez added.  "I thank Williams for getting me here to do my part. I know it causes hardships for my family, but they know what I do comes from my heart. For more than 20 years I've been trained to destroy ... this mission is quite a departure for me."

When home, Hernandez lives in Emerald Isle with his wife, Darcy, and children, Patrick and Kelsey. Prior to leaving for Baghdad he was the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the 4th MEB Training Center.