If one were to meet Mark White, first impressions won’t give away any hints about the crucial duties he carried out in Iraq. He’s soft-spoken, courteous, and appears to have a smile that never goes away – nothing that leads one to believe he was at one time in charge of keeping some of America’s biggest decision-makers alive.
And all carried out before he turned 30.
“When I was 17 and a junior in high school, my mom saw an article in the newspaper that said ‘Join the Army – Get college Money’,” White said. “So between my junior and senior year of high school, I went to boot camp. So when most kids are on the lake skiing and fishing, I was crawling around through the dirt getting yelled at for 24 hours.”
After high school and boot camp, White was sent in 1999 to Bosnia and Herzegovina in southeastern Europe, to work on removing landmines from the country that was overcome with war just a few years prior in the early 1990’s.
But not too long after working at the Eagle Base in Tuzla, White’s company was transitioned into providing security and defense for the base in northeastern Bosnia.
Just a few short years later, and at that time having climbed to the rank of First Lieutenant, White and his 110-man company were sent to Iraq as part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom mission. The company had multiple roles, but the primary duty assigned to White once again was providing security, including for high-profile visitors.
“Anytime any general officer or above, as well as cabinet level type of person, or celebrities came to the country, we provided their security. From the time they landed in Iraq,” White said. “Everything that involved getting them from one meeting to the next fell on us. And it’s pretty neat as a young officer to take the entire army staff - from G1 to G8 – all around the country and see the bigger picture. These aren’t necessarily meetings that you get to be around and see as an everyday solider in Iraq. So we were lucky enough and blessed to get to see the strategic picture.”
White watched over many famous visitors, from Congressmen like John McCain, to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to even celebrities like Toby Keith and Charlie Daniels.
“Charlie Daniels is a great American. That guy would stay up all night long taking pictures with everybody. He was so happy to take his big arms, put them around soldiers, and just take pictures,” White said. “It was so great that these Americans took time out of their life to come overseas and go in dangerous positions just to play some music to take everyone’s minds off what the hardships were that go along with being in Iraq in August.”
In 2009 White, who was at that point a company commander, was sent back to Iraq for a second tour of duty in that region. First came the task of handling detainee operations at a prison in the town of Taji, about 45 minutes north Baghdad.
“That was a tough job. Working in a prison is tough job. Working in an Iraqi prison is a lot tougher,” White said. “The pains and strains of motivating your soldiers is a very rigid and difficult task.”
Fortunately for White and his company, the prison was turned over to the Iraqi army after just three months, at which point he and his men transitioned back into security detail at Victory Base in Baghdad. And as White worked once again in the major central city, he was impressed by what was taking place.
“What was beneficial to me was seeing the country change from 2004 and 2005,” White said. “When we would travel around Baghdad in 2004 and 2005, it was your best guess as to what would happen. Now in 2009 and 2010 when we go through the cities, outside the green zone in the red zone if you will, on every corner there were police officers and other security elements.”
White, who now holds the rank of Major and on reserve status with the Texas National Guard, says he was glad that he took the chance 15 years ago and answered the ad in a newspaper.
“I feel very blessed to have served my country, to serve Texas as a national guard soldier, and it’s provided me the discipline and the structure that has been the foundation of my life moving forward,” White said. “I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to do it. And there’s no greater feeling than walking down the streets in a contingency area with a U.S. flag on your shoulder knowing that you were serving your country.”