A phone call made me proud

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 15, 2003

I have just returned from a week-long fact finding trip to Europe. I am tired but mighty proud.

The trip was organized by the Alabama National Guard and led by state Adjutant Gen. Mark Bowen. It was designed to survey Alabama’s contribution to peacekeeping in Europe.

I accompanied some 40 other Alabama civic leaders on this mission to three countries in Europe that included Germany, Belgium and Romania.

It was five days of briefings and meetings with our counterparts overseas.

Some people may not know it, but Alabama has been matched up with the country of Romania in Eastern Europe as sister participants in the partners for peace project designed by the North American Treaty Organization. It is intended as a way to assist this struggling country to climb into the 21st century.

The first stop on our weeklong trip was Germany.

We flew from Birmingham aboard an Air Force KC-135 Tanker equipped with passenger seats into our big Ramstein Air Force Base in western Germany.

This is the same airbase where our special operations forces flew Pvt. Jessica Lynch for treatment when she was wounded and rescued during the Iraqi War.

We spent one whole morning with officers from the European Command briefing us on the situation in Europe and why the National Guard is so important in its operation.

We learned that the Alabama National Guard plays a significant role in operations in Europe.

They assist commanders in helping supply materials to our troops in the Middle East theater.

Our Guard is good at checking, receiving and moving materials, so the active duty forces have called on Alabama to deploy here and keep the supplies moving.

While at the Air Force Base at Ramstein, U.S. Army officers helped me work the phones to attempt to locate Staff Sgt. Al Blankenship (USMC) from Chilton County. He is a member of the First Baptist Church of Clanton.

Before I left America, Dr. Larry Michaels of Clanton had informed me that Staff Sgt. Blankenship was in the hospital at Ramstein recovering from wounds and sickness suffered in an ambush while on patrol in Iraq. He asked me to check on him.

I am pleased to say that with army gung-ho persistence, we were able to track him down and talk to him on the phone. He was in another hospital some 40 miles away from the Air Force base and preparing to re-deploy back into Iraq.

Our telephone conversation was short but pleasant.

Blankenship told me he was feeling fine and in good spirits as he prepared to return to duty.

He told me that his wounds were not serious and that the Lord had protected him during the unexpected ambush.

Blankenship said his patrol came under intense fire from hostile Iraqis as they worked a checkpoint searching for suspected robbery bandits.

He said he was hit twice by gunshots that bounced off his bulletproof vest. All he suffered was scratches, he said.

However, in the subsequent days of the incident he contracted an infection and had to be transported to Germany for treatment. Tests were run to determine if he had contracted Cholera. As of our phone call, test results were still pending.

Despite the scare and the sickness, Staff Sgt. Blankenship said he was eager to return to his unit in Iraq and continue the American mission to bring peace to the wartorn country.

He thanked me for the phone call and insisted I tell everyone in Clanton he was OK.

Listening to the spirit of Staff Sgt. Blankenship made me proud to be an American. His infectious, upbeat attitude was a testimony to the professional brilliance of our United States fighting forces.

I came away feeling a little taller, and far more encouraged.

I believe we have the best military in the world and men like Staff Sgt. Al Blankenship of Chilton County prove it.

Keep him in your prayers as he serves all of us in Iraq.

Sen. Hank Erwin was elected to represent Shelby County in the State Senate in 2002