Scott McElroy, 39, and Josh Watkins, 33, have known each other for more than 20 years. Both from Cherokee County, they joined the Georgia Army National Guard as teens.
Watkins said they met when he was 11 years old, when McElroy was friends with his older brother.
Today, they work together as deputies for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. But it isn’t their first time wearing similar uniforms.
In May 2005, the two were deployed with the 48th Infantry Brigade of the National Guard to the storied, violent area of Iraq, just south of Baghdad, known as the Triangle of Death.
The Triangle of Death sits north of the Euphrates River and is made up of three cities key to the history of the Iraq War: Yusufiyah, Mahmoudiyah and Latifiyah, McElroy said.
The days these two Cherokee County natives spent there were not their first away from American soil serving in the military, but both recall them as days highlighted in the story of their military years and, in large part, their lives.
6,000 miles away from home
In Iraq, McElroy was stationed in the Mahmoudiyah camp and Watkins at the Yusufiyah camp.
Watkins was an E-4 specialist and crew member on a tank. He also worked foot patrol and guard duty, spending much of his time in the Yusufiyah camp, where he remembers mortars flying overhead every day.
“You could set your clock to it,” he said. “Everyday about dinnertime, you knew three mortar rounds are gonna come in.”
But those attacks, he said, rarely did any damage, and he and his fellow service members there were mostly safe.
“We did have some guys get hit with (improvised explosive devices),” Watkins recalled, but they were in tanks at the time and weren’t harmed.
McElroy didn’t have their luck. During his year-long tour of Iraq, McElroy served as a counter intelligence special agent. He said the sectarian nature of the fighting in Iraq made that position especially important.
“In a traditional army setting, key terrain is considered land, who owns the high ground, who owns the passes,” he said. “But in a counter insurgency like we fought in Iraq, key terrain is the people. You had to occupy the ground, but just as equally important (were) the people.” McElroy was on a trip to meet some of these people when he was hit with an IED and sustained injuries that are with him today.
A curve in the road
On September 8, 2005, McElroy was in a convoy of four Humvees driving to a neighborhood known for anti-American sentiment, in hopes of getting information from the residents.
Along the way, two of the Humvees in the group split off to check their perimeter, McElroy said.
His vehicle and the other stopped at a curve in the road and waited for the others to come back. McElroy said, sitting there waiting, it flashed in his mind what might soon happen.
“I specifically remember looking ahead of me, seeing the road curve and thinking to myself, ‘They like to put (IEDs) in curves.’ They liked to hit a convoy in a curve, so it separated (them).”
The insurgents who had been through that area were no different. A few minutes later the two other vehicles rejoined the convoy, and as soon as they began to pull away, the roadside bomb, which sat just ahead of the front tire on McElroy’s side of the Humvee, went off.
It ripped through the vehicle in a fiery blast, McElroy said, giving him a severe neck injury and soft-tissue damage to his left shoulder and left hip. He was treated and went back into service after two weeks.
Later, he said, it was determined that the pressure from the blast also gave him a brain injury.
It stayed with him for some time. “I’d go to tie my shoes and end up on the floor, because my equilibrium was off so much.”
When McElroy and Watkins left for Iraq, they were both married.
Watkins still is and lives in Cherokee County with his wife and young daughter. He left the Army National Guard after returning home from Iraq in May 2006 and works for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.
For McElroy, though, the strain of being away from home took its toll on his family, and his marriage ended during his stay in Iraq.
“About midway through, it just went away,” he said. It was a hard hit, but now that he’s home he has custody of his two children, a son, 10, and daughter, 15. “That makes it more bearable.”
McElroy came home from Iraq in May 2006 and went to work with the sheriff’s office, but stayed enlisted in the National Guard. In 2009, he was deployed to Afghanistan, and in 2011, to Lebanon. Then, in November of 2011 he was sent to Kosovo.
While there he re-injured his neck, and the military told him his 20 years were enough and asked him to retire. At first, McElroy said it was difficult to accept the end to his military career.
“I had a hard time with it. This has been my life’s work the past 20 years. I got my Eagle Scout in 1992 and started out with that sense of service being instilled in me, and for them to say, ‘You’re done,’ I had a hard time with it, but then the more I had time to settle down to really think it through, the more I’m OK with it.”
His children have been without him long enough, he said.