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Wisconsin Guard members prepare to return to Iraq

MADISON, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — When Paul Cusick got dressed Monday morning, he slid his arms into a camouflage shirt adorned with his name, his captain's rank, an American flag and his military unit patch.

The screaming eagle patch on his left shoulder has special meaning for Cusick; it draws him closer, in a way, to a man he never met but whose service to America at a time when the world was at war is part of his collective memory.

It's the same patch worn by Cusick's paternal grandfather during World War II when the screaming eagle insignia of the men of the 101st Airborne, who parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day, was well-known throughout Europe.

Now it's Cusick's turn to travel far from his Wisconsin home to take part in a battle against a foe in a distant land. Though it will be Cusick's third trip to Iraq, this is the first time the Wisconsin National Guard member will be deploying as a member of the 101st Airborne.

"This is a big deal to me – third generation. Grandpa served in World War II, my dad was in Vietnam with the brown water Navy," Cusick said Monday morning at a sendoff ceremony at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Madison. "I'm not going to lie. This is exciting."

It's also unprecedented.

Cusick and 65 other Wisconsin National Guard soldiers are members of a new unit that's part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, Ky. They're part of the first-ever Army initiative to integrate National Guard and reserves soldiers into an active duty unit.

The Wisconsin soldiers are deploying to Iraq and Kuwait to help train Iraqi forces as part of a group of approximately 500 soldiers from 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Headquarters. Following the sendoff ceremony, they said goodbye to their families and friends and boarded buses to Fort Campbell for pre-deployment training. The Wisconsin soldiers are expected to return from Iraq in late 2016.

The deployment is part of a regular rotation of division headquarters, with the 101st replacing the 82nd Airborne which since June has led the efforts of about 3,500 American troops training Iraqi security forces battling Islamic State militants.

The Wisconsin National Guard unit was formed last spring with 24 officers and 42 enlisted soldiers from a variety of backgrounds including infantry, logistics and aviation.

Integrating National Guard and reserves within an active duty unit is a legacy of budget cuts and a drawdown in Army troop numbers following the end of the Iraq War and curtailing of operations in Afghanistan, as well as 15 years of wars where military commanders increasingly relied on guard and reserve units from every state, including Wisconsin.

Judging by the number of hands that went up when the Wisconsin 101st soldiers were asked how many had deployed before, about half of Detachment 1, 101st Airborne Division have previously served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both.

©2016 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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