Capt. Kevin Eastep, 35, of Springdale, Ark., medical officer for 1st Battalion, 206th Field Artillery Regiment, 39th Brigade Combat Team, packs his foot locker at Camp Taji, Iraq.

Capt. Kevin Eastep, 35, of Springdale, Ark., medical officer for 1st Battalion, 206th Field Artillery Regiment, 39th Brigade Combat Team, packs his foot locker at Camp Taji, Iraq. (Vince Little / S&S)

CAMP TAJI, Iraq — Army Staff Sgt. Jeffery Bergan still recalls his welcome to Baghdad last April while traveling north from Kuwait.

“When we first came into the city, our convoy got ambushed,” he said. “It was all peaceful through southern Iraq. Then, in Baghdad, we got engaged right away. They told us it would happen, but that first live round is still a shock to the system.”

Nearly a year later, the 31-year-old from Beebe, Ark., a battle noncommissioned officer for the 39th Brigade Combat Team’s tactical operations center, says things have calmed down dramatically. Rocket and mortar attacks on Taji have dropped, and even the convoys coming up from Kuwait now encounter few problems.

So perhaps it was fitting that 39th Brigade officials quietly handed authority to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division in a low-profile ceremony Wednesday. The operational area extends about 20 kilometers north of Taji and south into Baghdad, down to Sadr City and east of the Tigris River.

The brigade, with almost 3,700 soldiers in Iraq, began pulling out Sunday for Kuwait on the long road back to Little Rock, Ark. It has units in 47 towns throughout Arkansas and nine other states. Counting a five-month training stint prior to the deployment, most troops will wind up being away from home for about 18 months.

Before the unit took command here, five of its soldiers died in separate mortar attacks on Taji, while another was killed in an ambush west of the camp. One lost a leg on a bridge during those initial convoy attacks entering Baghdad.

Brig. Gen. Ronald S. Chastain, the 39th Brigade Combat Team commander, declined to say how many casualties the unit suffered after gaining authority, but lauded the performance and sacrifices made by his soldiers.

“When you lose four people from one company in a rocket attack, that’s pretty devastating,” he said. “Our soldiers have been through a lot.”

Roadside bombs posed the greatest danger to 39th Brigade soldiers, he added, causing multiple casualties. In one incident, three soldiers were killed by a blast while responding to wounded personnel from another attack.

In late January, a huge explosion ripped open the bottom of an M1 tank. The brigade also lost a few Bradley fighting vehicles to the roadside devices.

When the 39th Brigade arrived, installation security was deficient, Chastain said. Soldiers immediately started placing sandbags and concrete around living areas and office buildings.

Chastain said he regrets that brigade soldiers never managed to develop stronger ties with Iraqis living north of Taji, an area that was very dependent on the Saddam Hussein regime. Many worked on the facility, which had been an Iraqi air base before the war.

“We did not maintain continuity with those people in the northern area,” Chastain said. “Success with the Iraqi people is based on building personal relationships. We were not able to do that in the northern area.”

Two Iraqi National Guard battalions and a separate Iraqi Army company received training and equipment from the 39th Brigade, he said, which led to the successful elections Jan. 30.

Within the sector during the past year, two massive Shiite marches to the Khadamiyah Shrine were staged through Sunni regions. They were accompanied by very little violence, and Chastain credits the brigade’s work with Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Police officials.

Bergan said he had very little faith in Iraqi security forces when he first arrived, but that’s changed.

“I didn’t know if I really wanted to go out with these guys,” he added. “We trained extensively with them. Now, I’m pretty confident they can perform. They put out a show of force that has made security a lot better.”

The 39th Brigade Combat Team also featured the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Task Force — its lone active-duty element — a Macedonian special-forces platoon and Army Reserve detachments.

“It certainly wasn’t a pure National Guard unit,” Chastain said. “Our soldiers have done awfully well. They really have.”

Bergan hopes that’ll help shed some negative perceptions about National Guard members.

“They say we’re the ones who never engage, never deploy. The National Guard always stays back,” he said. “I believe we actually proved ourselves.”

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