Alpha Company returns home, honors fallen soldiers

Georgia National Guard 1st Sgt. John Blair may have not been one of those leaders that people necessarily liked.

But all of his comrades in Alpha Company definitely respected him.

“He was definitely a soldier’s leader,” said 1St Lt. Aaron Anderson. “He was a hard leader. He did things the old way and yelled a lot and kept them in line, but that’s what he needed to do to get them to prepare for war.”

Blair of Calhoun was honored as part of the Alpha Company’s homecoming in Lawrenceville Saturday morning. Blair wasn’t there, however, the 38-year-old was killed by an insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush last year.

It was just three weeks into a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan for the 125-strong Alpha Company, Lt. Col. Matthew Smith said.

“It was a terrible loss,” Smith said. “Any time a soldier gets killed or gravely wounded it is, but he was such a positive influence.”

Smith praised Blair for not engaging in so-called “likership,” the snide term that soldiers give to leaders who, as he puts it, worry about maintaining their emotional bond with their soldiers instead of a professional one.

“It is sometimes difficult for people to separate the duties that their position requires from their own humanity,” Smith said. “But when leaders do that, the soldiers see that … and then they respect the leader.”

The 3,200 soldiers in the Macon-based Georgia National Guard 48th Brigade Team started deploying to Afghanistan in February 2009 to train that country’s police and security forces. They started coming back in February this year, with the last group returning in April.

“The soldiers in Alpha Company did really well,” Anderson said. “They bonded together and got through and continued the mission like 1st Sgt. Blair would have wanted.”

Alpha Company marched through downtown Lawrenceville on Saturday and stopped at the “Fallen Heroes Memorial.”

“This completes your mission over the last year. We have accomplished a lot and suffered a lot over the last year,” Anderson said during the emotional ceremony that drew a crowd of about 1,000.

A commemorative plaque was unveiled Saturday in Blair’s name. Also, pending approval from the state Legislature, the armory in Lawrenceville will be renamed to honor Blair as well as Staff Sgt. Alex French IV, who was killed last September. Blair and French were killed during different missions conducted in the Khowst Province of Afghanistan.

Smith said Blair’s death reinforces a military statistic that most deaths or serious injuries take place during the first 100 days of deployment. Soldiers are getting used to a new setting, but enemy troops are very familiar with the area.

Blair is among seven 48th Brigade soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan. An eighth died in a vehicle rollover.

Smith, acknowledging that every death is a loss, said that those figures are low for a 3,000-plus unit, and it’s something of which they are proud.