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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Career Soldier Awaits Next Move More War, Or Maybe More Rank


August 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved.

Hinesville --- These are anxious and uncertain times for Army 1st Sgt. Jose Mercado and his family.

A decorated combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War and last year's invasion of Iraq, the 41-year-old Mercado is preparing for his third tour in a combat zone.

It could come as early as December. Or it could be delayed more than a year.

Perhaps he will not have to go at all: He is waiting for an announcement from the Pentagon on a possible promotion to sergeant major that would send him to school at Fort Bliss, Texas, instead of Iraq. The list could be announced this month or might be delayed until October.

Until then, "I'm preparing myself for the worst-case scenario," said Mercado, a 23-year veteran of the Army.

That scenario is a second tour in Iraq in little more than a year with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), based at Fort Stewart. His former unit, Charlie Company of the division's Task Force 1-64 of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, returned home last August after 11 months in Kuwait and Iraq that included fierce fighting in downtown Baghdad in April 2003.

Mercado narrowly escaped death or serious injury several times during the battle for Baghdad. He was awarded a Bronze Star with "V" device for valor when he tried to save a tank disabled by heavy enemy fire during the initial foray into Baghdad.

A deeply religious man, Mercado said he is still amazed that only four Charlie Company soldiers were wounded during the war and that he was spared the day he tried to save the tank.

"The only thing I can think of was that I had angels all around me," he said.

A native of Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, Mercado is now the senior enlisted soldier with Delta Company of 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment. It is a new tank company, being built from scratch.

If he heads to Iraq, it will be a different war with a different mission. Last year the division was on the offensive, leading the charge into Iraq. "Now, it's not a matter of picking the target. We are the target," he said.

Trying to teach young, eager and occasionally trigger-happy soldiers that the new mission is to stabilize and secure Iraq, rather than attack it, will take time and patience.

He admits the war has changed him. He is more mellow, more understanding and tolerant of the plight of young soldiers, especially those with families.

The war also has given him a new appreciation for life, more --- and better --- understanding of the sacrifices his family has made.

His wife of 22 years, Ermelinda, sees the changes as well. "He's not the same anymore. He doesn't talk with me that much like he used to," she said.

Jose occasionally finds himself staring at the mental images of the war, of the dead and wounded, especially the two young soldiers who were shot and badly injured as they rode through Baghdad in the back of his armored personnel carrier.

"If I watch a movie and there's a lot of blood, I get depressed. But it excites me, too. I want to get back into action," he said.

Ermelinda views her husband's expected return to Iraq with trepidation. The last time he was gone, she attended daily Mass at the Fort Stewart chapel. She has continued that ritual, and will do so again if he returns to the war.

"It's going to be very tough," she said. "We're still recuperating from the last one."

Two of their three children, Melissa, 16, and Crystal, 13, will be home with her. Son John is in the Air Force in South Carolina.

Jose marvels at Ermelinda's fortitude, especially lately. During the past four years, he has spent less than two years at home. There was a deployment to South Korea without his family for a year, followed by a year at home. Then he spent 11 months in Kuwait and Iraq. Now, his wife faces another year without him.

"She has never quit," he said. "Of all the things I have been through, I can say my wife has never complained about the military."

But he worries about his young soldiers who will go to Iraq for a year, and about their family members, who have no experience in dealing with loneliness or family support systems close at hand.

A 12-month deployment, he said, "is rough on the family. It's rough on the children. And it's rough on the marriage, trying to keep together the integrity of that union."

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