10th Mountain on yet another deployment
BAGHDAD — When 21-year-old Spc. Alfredo Zendijias first stepped inside the gate of the fabled 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., in 2001, little did he know that the division would soon become famous as one the Army’s most-deployed units.
In fact, his unit in particular, Company C of the 10th Mountain Division’s 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, “is one of the most deployed units in the Army,” according to Lt. Col. John Spiszer, battalion commander.
After Sept. 11, 2001, elements of the 10th Mountain were deployed to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Uzbekistan; Afghanistan for Operation Anaconda; Djibouti in the Horn of Africa; and now Iraq — for a full year, Spiszer said Wednesday.
Zendijias said he knew, after the Sept. 11 attacks — he was in basic training at the time — that deployments would follow, no matter which unit he ended up in.
“I just didn’t expect to be out this often,” said the young soldier, whose favorite deployment to date has been Africa. “Maybe once.”
By the time they return home after a year in Iraq, some 10th Mountain soldiers “will have been deployed for more than 26 months out of the past 45 months,” said Spiszer, whose battalion is nicknamed the Polar Bears.
“We have lots of [battle-] scarred soldiers in this brigade,” said 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander Col. Mark Milley, a Princeton-educated Ranger and former Special Forces infantryman.
In fact, between 40 percent and 50 percent of the 10th Mountain soldiers who are now here at Camp Victory were either in Afghanistan, Iraq, or both, Milley said. So Zendijias, who is from Norwalk, Calif., is not alone.
The 2nd BCT is responsible for 700 square miles of the western “hinterlands” of Baghdad, Spizser said.
The soldiers “do full spectrum operations, from constant patrolling… to helping recruit and mentor” the new Iraq National Police force, Milley said Wednesday.
The brigade also works with local officials on civil affairs projects such as health care, irrigation systems and potable water and sewage disposal, he said.
Some of the 10th Mountain’s soldiers are not in Iraq by choice, such as Spc. Billy Weatherall, a 23-year-old from Bossier City, La. He was only three days from finishing his Army contract and going to college when he got the news on May 12 that he had been extended in order to be sent to Iraq for a year.
Weatherall, who said he joined the military “out of family tradition,” including both grandfathers in the Air Force and a father in the Marines, had been in the Army for four years and four months and had already done three deployments: Aberdeen, Uzbekistan and Anaconda. Now he is in Iraq, where the unit arrived in mid-July after spending a month in Kuwait. In total, he has been deployed for one year and nine months, he said.
Weatherall said he doesn’t mind deployments: “… But I didn’t realize I’d be deployed four times.”
Like his company mate Zendijias, Weatherall liked his stint in Africa the best.
“It was a fantastic deployment,” he said while grabbing a taco-and-cheese dinner at the chow hall after a Wednesday patrol. “We got to see so much of the other cultures.”
The least favorite, for both men, was Operation Anaconda, in Afghanistan.
“Just the terrain was so rough,” never mind the fighting, Zendijias said while chewing a corn dog and some fried chicken.
Iraq isn’t too bad, both men said.
“The hardest part is not being able to call my family, or not getting time off to goof around with my friends,” Zendijias said.
In his precious spare time, Weatherall said, he “lifts weights and goes to church.”
“I think [God] is looking over our shoulders because he knows what we are doing is right,” the devout Baptist said.
Weatherall said he still intends to go to college when his extension finally ends.
But he doesn’t want to cut all his Army ties — he wants to join his local National Guard unit.
“I want to be with my buddies,” he said.
Zendijias said he intends to stay in the Army. His dream assignment is Fort Lewis, Wash., working with the new Stryker Brigade.