Jim Wilson had been engaged in combat environments three times and was back home in Gilmer County. When he heard that 1st Lt. Noah Harris of Ellijay died from an IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Iraq in 2005, he knew what he had to do — re-enlist again for the War on Terror.
“I was sent to the evacuation of the American Embassy in 1990 in Liberia, I was in Desert Storm, and went to Bosnia when the genocide was occurring in 1993,” said Wilson, whose first tours of duty were as a U.S. Marine.
A 1987 graduate of Gilmer High School, he had already enlisted in the Marines as a truck driver, where he served eight years and then four more in the Marine Reserves before getting out in 2002.
“When Noah Harris was killed, I just felt like I was sitting around doing nothing,” he said. So began deployments to Iraq in 2005-06 and Afghanistan in 2009-10. However, it was a different journey back to the front lines.
“I volunteered to go back into the Marines, but that unit had just finished a deployment,” he said. But word travels fast in the military, even among branches.
“A Georgia National Guard recruiter from the 108th Armor of the 48th Infantry Brigade called from their headquarters in Calhoun and said, 'I heard you'd be interested in serving again' and I said yeah,” he shared. “He said there was a unit getting ready to deploy. I spent my last eight years in the National Guard.”
Wilson's first deployment in 2005 involved going to the New Orleans area and helping look for survivors and the bodies of victims following Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, after just three weeks in Iraq, the unit was moved south to Tallil and he was assigned to the 648th Engineers for convoy security.
“They put four gun trucks in a convoy of 20 tractor-trailers and we'd go 300 miles a night, just wide open, keeping them safe and getting them from Point A to Point B, keeping the bad guys away,” he said. “Convoy security would either find, or get hit with, at least one IED a night. We would average eight or nine IED hits a week across the entire supply route. It was just a nasty, nasty place.”
Georgia soldiers killed
There were some heartbreaking losses.
“In Afghanistan, we went out as a recon unit for five days to find things and were doing a route recon,” he recalled. “We'd already scouted a couple of places and were getting ready to do a foot patrol to check bridges for weight classifications. We had a lieutenant colonel that said, 'Everybody back in the truck, turn us around, we're going back.'”
Wilson was changing a tire that had a blowout when one of his men came and explained the reason for the turnaround.
“He told me our XO (executive officer, just below commanding officer) Major Jenrette, Staff Sergeant Beale and Specialist Jordon were just killed by an IED, 85 pounds of homemade explosive,” he said. “John Beale was from McDonough and was my best friend. He was a good man, he really was. He'd stop you on the way to chow and ask, 'How ya doin'?' and really want to know. He was a super guy, and that just really tore the heart out of the unit.
“All three of those men were extremely well-liked. Staff Sergeant Beale would wake up before reveille in the barracks and crack the door to let enough light in to read his Bible before he woke everybody up … I miss him.”
There were other deaths of Georgia soldiers as well.
“We lost a captain in August of '09, Matthew Freeman from Richmond Hill,” he remembered. “He was a C-130 pilot, an Annapolis man (Naval Academy) that volunteered to go in on the ground and help take a village back from the Taliban when he was killed. He came over in the group with Dakota Meyer, the first living Marine to win the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. We were based with them, and were five 'clicks' away (5,000 meters) when it happened.”
Wilson said the closest he ever came to being wounded was when he saw “people going down around him.”
“In September 2009 — I don't know exactly what happened — but I was working out, doing sit-ups and something didn't feel right,” he said. “I went to see a doctor and he said I had a hernia.”
Facing surgery, he asked not to be sent to Germany — where he knew he would have to first leave his unit and then go back to the States — but was sent to an Air Force base in Qatar instead. The doctor told him after the surgery he had five hernias instead of one. In 20 years, there were other injuries as well.
'God's got something'
After finally completing his duties as a sergeant in the Marines and a staff sergeant in the National Guard, Wilson came back to Ellijay for good. He's 52 now and has been retired medically since age 45 due to his injuries. He was asked if he wondered why he survived when so many didn't.
“In my 20 years, I've tried to count the exact number — it's somewhere close to 70 men — that died in training or in combat in my units,” Wilson replied. “I personally knew probably 20 to 30 of them. I wonder why I made it back. My wife, Andrea Postell — Ray Postell is my father-in-law, he was in Vietnam — swears that God's got something left for me to do. I'm trying to figure it out. I'm not trying to rush it, but I'd like to know. I kinda feel like it's working with veterans somehow, maybe in a homeless shelter. I'm retired now, I wasn't given a choice because of my injuries.”
He reflected on losing his best friend.
“When we were training up in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, before going over I was going to be in an advance party, so I got to take my leave early,” he said. “John Beale stayed back, and while I was gone they created a fourth team from three teams — we were combat advisers and went and lived with the Afghans as an ETT (embedded training team). He volunteered to go with that fourth team while I was on leave … and then I went in with the advance party.
“Their team went into the Al-Asay Valley, and that's where he got killed. Had we both been there, it probably would have been me to go with the fourth team, because they wanted guys that had been in the Marines as leaders in the valley. He took my place, so I carry that.”
What does Memorial Day mean to him?
“I'd just like everyone to know that if you want to thank a veteran for his service, that's Veterans Day. Memorial Day is when we remember the ones that didn't come back,” Wilson said. “I was holding one young man in my arms when he died. Those are actual people, they're not pictures on a TV or a magazine or a book. Those are our neighbors, our sons and daughters, our friends, our brothers and sisters. They're special people. You have people from the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor come together in one group, they come from all walks of life. They're people who are willing to die for us — and some do. All those boys gave their tomorrows for our today.”
Wilson has “got a lot of names in my head.”
“Sometimes I'll sit in my driveway and drink a beer and think about them,” he said. “I can't remember who said it, and I wish I could, but someone said, 'We shouldn't cry because men died, rather we should rejoice because they lived.' That's kinda the way I look at it now … Memorial Day is a time to remember people like that actually existed. That's the reason I put this tattoo (honoring John Beale) on my arm, because I can't carry it in my heart anymore. I can't live with it every day.”
"All those boys gave their tomorrows for our today." — Combat veteran Jim Wilson
A harrowing day in Desert Storm
When Sgt. Jim Wilson was serving with a U.S. Marine unit in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, some fuel trucks in a convoy he was in collided in the midst of a sandstorm. Fuel tanks from four trucks exploded. Following is a partial account of that action, drawn from his writings.
“We ran through an inferno, and as we ran, we found one of the supply guys … laying on the ground,” he began. “He looked at us and said, 'Just help me, please just help me.' All the skin on his arms was peeled off, laying on the ground and on top of his hands. He had a hole in his forehead and a huge bloody spot on his leg. He rolled over and I could see his brain inside his head. He was holding his arms up and there was cooked skin everywhere. I wrapped the hole in his head to protect his brain, and realized there wasn't much else I could do.”
Wilson kept moving, trying to help others.
“I ran around to the opposite side of the carnage … I turned and looked, and the crash had knocked the door off a truck,” he recalled. “The Marine was sitting there, clawing at the harness to release himself from the truck. As I reached up to grab him, he fell from the cab. As he fell, flames flew and I ducked. When I stood up, he was laying on the ground still burning.
“I jumped on him and put him out … the other Marines around us drug him away and I rolled on the ground to put the fire on myself out. I grabbed him and we pulled him away from the fire. He was a young Black man, and all his skin that was exposed to the flames was pink with red spots where the hair follicles would have been. His scalp looked like charcoal briquettes. His brown eyes were the color of silver and he had no eyelids. He had no ears or nose.
“He was an only child from College Park. I held him in my arms and his last words on this Earth were 'I want to go home, Jim. I want to go to Georgia.' That's all I got to say about that day.”