Five years ago, thousands of Wisconsin factory workers, farmers, students, hamburger cooks and accountants were far from their homes, crossing the desert frontier between Kuwait and Iraq on a historic mission to help bring an unpopular war to a close.
When the Wisconsin National Guard’s largest deployment to a combat zone since World War II ended about eight months later, 3,200 men and women returned with vivid memories of desert heat, blinding sandstorms, extended separation from families and friends, interaction with a foreign culture, and duties that ranged from tedious to harrowing.
They arrived back in Wisconsin amid one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history. Many encountered rough patches reuniting with families. More than a few struggled to slow down to the speed of civilian life after missions that required constant vigilance.
And many brought home new confidence and fresh perspectives after overcoming difficult circumstances overseas, said Lt. Col. Ryan Brown, executive officer for the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which accounted for most of the roughly 4,000 state Guard members on full-time active duty overseas during 2009.
“Deployments change lives,” said Brown, who spent 2009 — his third military deployment — as defense operations chief for the cluster of military bases in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. “For the most part, people come back more prepared to deal with the rest of their lives rather than less prepared. Some will say ‘this is making my life harder,’ but the vast majority are better equipped to deal with life in general.”
Despite the well-documented stress of lengthy mobilizations, the state Guard’s turnover rate stayed at about 15 to 16 percent as deployments grew more frequent during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Brown said.
“Retention is high because we paid some attention to it,” said Col. Tim Lawson, commander of the 32nd IBCT. “We went out of our way to work with employers and families.”
Since 2009, the state Guard’s Madison-based Service Member Support Division has grown, making it able to deliver more assistance to soldiers and families before, during and after deployments, Lawson said.
The division added a job placement service in 2012 when unemployment was running at 10 percent in the 32nd.
Military officials say men and women with experience like overseas deployments are great hires because they have been trained as disciplined leaders and problem solvers.
Closing out a war
Annual U.S. casualties in Iraq peaked in 2007 at 904, and dropped below 150 in 2009. Only one Wisconsin Guard soldier died in Iraq that year. The death was described as unrelated to combat.
The U.S. was turning the country back to Iraqi control, and the 32nd played its role by helping prepare for Iraqis to take control of 20,000 suspected detainees held by U.S. forces. Wisconsin soldiers guarded detainees, helped empty out a massive detention camp, transported prisoners to Baghdad courtrooms, and trained Iraqis as corrections officers.
During pre-mobilization training in Florida and New Mexico, many soldiers were unhappy to learn that nearly half of them would work 12-hour shifts in detention facilities instead of their chosen duties in infantry, transportation, engineering and artillery.
“Part of the power of the National Guard is its incredible flexibility,” the state Guard’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, told the soldiers in a letter after they returned home. “(The) Army needed these missions accomplished by professional Soldiers who could do it right the first time.”
Detainee duty proved grueling and tedious for some, while others warmed to the task. But not all the 32nd’s days were quiet.
Missions still classified
One unit was forced to watch helplessly as 11 of the Iranian refugees who had been under their protection were killed by Iraqi soldiers who stormed the camp firing guns and swinging clubs. The July 2009 incident at Camp Ashraf was condemned by Amnesty International.
“Our guys were trying to intervene to stop it and they were told they couldn’t,” said Maj. Michael Hanson, deputy director of the Service Member Support Division. The unit’s commander, Capt. Andrew Weiler, wasn’t comfortable discussing the incident or its impact on his troops, said state Guard spokesman 1st Lt. Joe Trovato.
At some detention camps, soldiers had to quell disturbances or forcibly move uncooperative detainees.
Other soldiers drove detainees from the camps to the courts in Baghdad, often speeding past the wrecks of vehicles overturned earlier by buried bombs. After standing by in court as judges ordered long prison terms or even death, Wisconsin troops drove sometimes distraught detainees back to camp.
Some units defended bases, and the duty could be uneventful. Still, even in the Green Zone, bombs were periodically lobbed in, shaking the walls for blocks around.
There were units with riskier duties.
More than 200 soldiers worked in small patrol units to conduct thousands of high-risk surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance missions from one end of Iraq to the other, according to duty summaries provided to the State Journal. Soldiers wore civilian clothes with “relaxed grooming” standards so they could try to blend in to surroundings. At least some were under tactical control of Special Operations forces.
Further details of the missions are still classified, Trovato said.
But soldiers said it wasn’t unusual to be rocked by nearby explosions, or targeted by small arms fire.
Help is available
Some soldiers reported a transition period of weeks or months shedding the hyper-alertness required by hazardous duty. Even the stress of being overseas in a support role can take a toll. The Guard’s support division urges all soldiers to take advantage of confidential counseling.
“It’s going to be different for everybody,” said 1st Sgt. Paul Metz, 46, a guard at the Oxford Federal Correctional Institution who has gone on five deployments since joining the guard in 1993 and a regular Army tour during the first Gulf War. “Other people might find it harder and other people might find it easier. I usually take a month or month and a half before I go back to work.”
Metz’s 2009 stint was with the Reedsburg-based Charlie Co. of the 1-105th Cavalry, one of the units that conducted high-risk missions in populated areas not under tight military control.
“There were an awful lot of (bombs) but nothing that directly affected me,” Metz said. “They were close enough where they certainly shook the dust off the ceilings.”
Much of the stress comes from needing to be alert constantly to danger, Metz said. When traffic stops on a busy street, it could mean an ambush is imminent, he said.
“You’re in a different mindset when you put on your Kevlar and your helmet and you lock and load outside the gate,” Metz said.
Back home, Metz said, he spent time talking to a counselor to help him ease back the throttle.
“I’ve always found it most difficult the first two months back, just the emotions and feelings,” Metz said. “You can’t turn it off like a switch.”
Metz, however, did turn it back on. In 2012 he volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan as part of a team spreading agriculture technology.