Iva Yvonne Buggs of Williston was in New York City on March 24, 2003, when she got the worst news of her life.
She was there to attend the funeral of a niece who had been killed in a car wreck. As she watched television, the news flashed that her son, Sgt. George Edward Buggs Jr., a 31-year-old member of the 3rd Infantry Division from Barnwell, was missing in Iraq along with more than a dozen other soldiers.
“I just froze,” Yvonne Buggs said. “I just felt his death. I went home immediately.”
Sixty-four service members with ties to South Carolina gave their lives in that conflict, which was declared over on Dec. 15 when the last U.S. combat troops left the country. Buggs was the first of those to die in combat.
While Memorial Day today is a time to remember their sacrifices, Buggs’ death is now forgotten by most except family and friends. His resting place is noted only by a small bronze grave marker in Hope Memorial Park cemetery in rural Barnwell County. But his story is both intertwined and overshadowed by one of the most tragic and controversial events in modern U.S. military history — the capture and rescue of a young soldier from West Virginia named Jessica Lynch.
Lynch’s was the first successful rescue of an American prisoner of war since World War II and the first ever of a woman. The event made international headlines and turned the young private into a celebrity. But critics later charged that the United States government exaggerated the facts of the rescue, manipulated the media and exploited Lynch to build public support for a war many thought was unnecessary.
Buggs and 10 other soldiers died in that incident when their rear-echelon maintenance convoy made a wrong turn into the teeth of enemy resistance in the city of Nasiriyah. Buggs, along with 3ID soldier Spc. Edward Anguiano, of Brownsville, Texas, flanked Lynch in the Humvee they were riding in and returned fire as she huddled in the back seat with a jammed weapon. When the vehicle was hit and wrecked by a rocket-propelled grenade, Lynch, severely injured and unconscious, was taken prisoner. Buggs, along with Anguiano, died fighting.
“It was just something that most of us can’t imagine,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg, who wrote “I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story.”
“Swarms of Iraqi fighters appeared around them,” he said. “It was immobilizing terror.”
‘A GIFTED CHILD’
Buggs’ mother calls her son Edward. Friends and other family members call him George. He grew up in Barnwell, and was raised by Yvonne and her husband George, who separated when he was young, and by his grandparents, George and Florine Buggs.
Father George Buggs declined to comment for this story.
“I want to remember him as he was,” he said. “I’m done with all that.”
Efforts to reach his sisters, Joyce and Delaine; widow, Wanda; and son, Guy, were unsuccessful.
At 6 years old, Buggs signed on to play pee-wee football, but he had to quit when he was diagnosed with asthma. Despite that, he joined the school band. “He played the flute, the trumpet and the tuba,” Yvonne Buggs said.
His mother said Buggs was “a gifted child, never got into trouble at all.”
And although he never became an accomplished musician, Buggs did get something from band — a wife. He met Wanda at Barnwell High School band camp one summer.
“I was 14; he was three years older,” Wanda Buggs told The State shortly after his death in 2003. “He was real shy, and quiet, but one day he asked me to the movies, and we started dating.”
After graduating from high school in 1990, Buggs spent a year at the Nielsen Electronics Institute in North Charleston. Then, he moved back home to work at Dixie-Narco, a freezer manufacturer in Williston, where his father also worked.
Buggs married Wanda in 1994, after she became pregnant with Guy. He tried to find a better job at Dixie-Narco, but didn’t get it. So he opted for the Army. “He wanted to go in at 17,” Yvonne Buggs said. “But I wouldn’t let him.”
‘I thought … he would get killed’
Buggs first joined the S.C. National Guard, then the regular Army as part of the 3ID stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., near Savannah.
Yvonne said that from the beginning, she had a feeling of dread that something might happen to her son.
“I thought — just like it happened — that if he stayed in the Army he would get killed,” she said. “I tried to talk him into getting out of it. But he loved the Army. He would tell me, ‘Ma, I can get killed around here!’”
While stationed at Fort Stewart, Buggs would often come home and cook for the family, or take them out to eat. “He loved to eat,” Yvonne said. “Red Lobster was his favorite. He loved any kind of seafood.”
Over the next decade, Buggs was stationed in San Antonio, Texas, Germany, Bosnia and Kosovo. The strains of Army life grew and he and Wanda separated in 2000.
Buggs was assigned to the 3rd Combat Support Battalion of the 3ID — he was a mechanic, his mother said — and was supposed to leave for Germany in February 2003. Instead, his orders were switched to support the invasion of Iraq. It came as a shock to Buggs, his mother said, because he had misinterpreted an Army regulation that no only-child would be sent to combat. The regulation states that no only-child as a result of a sibling’s death in combat would be sent to the front lines.
It shook him, Yvonne said.
In his last phone call home, Buggs did all the talking.
“He said, ‘Ma, I don’t want you to say anything. Just let me talk,’” Yvonne said. “He said he was going to the front. And he said ‘I love you’ over and over again until the phone went dead.”
A wrong turn
The events of March 23, 2003, are a blur, even to those who were there.
A convoy consisting of elements of Buggs’ 3rd Forward Support Battalion as well as Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company were driving north up Iraq’s Highway 8 in support of advancing American combat columns. It had wreckers, water trucks and other support vehicles.
At Nasiriyah, the commander took a wrong turn, guiding the column into the hostile city rather than around it.
The soldiers found themselves surrounded and overwhelmed by Iraqi fighters much as Army Rangers did in the better-known “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in 1993.
Buggs and Anguiano were separated from their unit and were picked up by the soldiers in Lynch’s Humvee. Their bodies were not discovered until a week later, when US Special Forces units raided a hospital in which Lynch was being held.
Critics say there were no combatants in the hospital when Lynch was rescued, just stunned doctors. They also charge that the Pentagon exaggerated her wounds by saying she was shot and stabbed when she wasn’t.
Author Bragg doesn’t worry too much about those details. The terror that Lynch went through and the suffering of the families of those killed should be uppermost in people’s minds, he said.
“They were peacetime soldiers as much as you can be peacetime soldiers in our day and age,” he said. There were “a whole lot of people intent on killing them because they made a wrong turn. If everything had gone as planned, they might have arrived safely at a base and gone about their work. It’s pretty simple when you get right down to it.”
Yvonne Buggs said she is still shaken by her son’s death to this day. She visits his grave on holidays, such as today, and his birthday.
She said she has accepted Edward’s death as “his destiny. We never know what our destiny is.”
Yvonne said faith in God helped her deal with the pain, and would advise that other mother’s who have suffered such a loss also embrace their faith.
“The only way you can deal with this is to trust in the Lord,” she said. “If you do then everything will be right.”
Despite her loss, Yvonne said she supported the war in Iraq, and thinks it was the right thing to do.
Yvonne spends a lot of time with her 17-year-old granddaughter Desiree Buggs, who was 8 when her uncle was killed in combat.
Desiree has just joined the SC National Guard and wants to make a career of the Army. She looks up to her uncle, and wants to go to Afghanistan to serve her country as he did.
“I want to finish what he started,” she said.