1st AD commander talks about tour extension
WIESBADEN, Germany — When the Defense Department extended the combat tour of the 1st Armored Division in April 2004, Maj. Gen. Fred D. Robinson was working the issue at the Pentagon.
At the time, the two-star general was a half-year removed from the war in Iraq, where he wore the Old Ironsides patch and, for a time, served as acting commander of the 1st AD. His tour was cut short when he was tabbed to become the Army deputy chief of staff for operations, readiness and mobilization.
“One of the hardest things I ever had to do was leave this division while it was in combat in Baghdad,” Robinson said in a speech in July 2005 when he became the division’s full-time commander. “But I watched from afar as you carried out your mission” in Iraq.
And also from afar, he became intimately re-engaged with the unit when the Pentagon decided to keep the 1st AD in Iraq for up to four more months.
Last week, during a 90-minute interview in his office in Wiesbaden, Robinson spoke of working on that first extension and how he knew full well it would bring creases to the faces of people he went to war with a year earlier.
“To say I didn’t think about the (possibility of) casualties after the event, after the extension, would be, well, I wouldn’t be honest,” Robinson said as he sat at the head of a small conference table. “And it’s the same thing with the 46 days here.”
The 46-day extension he referred to — the second for the division in as many tours to Iraq — is for the 3,900 soldiers of the 1st Brigade, based in Friedberg and supported by units from nearby Giessen. However, overtime this time won’t be nearly as long as before. The extra time now means the brigade will likely return sometime around March.
The first extension lasted about three months.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the second extension unfolded on Robinson’s watch, although unlike his predecessor, he and his headquarters staff aren’t among the deployed.
“Many times deploying is a whole lot easier than not deploying,” said Robinson, a Gulf War veteran. “Absolutely it is. And if you ask most of the soldiers, it’s harder to stay back here than it is to go forward. But that’s not what the Army is charging me to do.”
Robinson spent the first few months of his tenure preparing the division for its deployment to Iraq and Kuwait. The 2nd Brigade in Baumholder left last fall, while the 1st Brigade departed after the winter holidays.
Since then, Robinson, who turns 52 on Tuesday, has largely worked behind the scenes, though he periodically travels downrange to visit his troops. Robinson said he is careful not “to get in their way,” a reference to his troops and the combat commanders now in charge in Iraq.
“When they go into Iraq, they have a [new] boss and my job is to support them,” Robinson said. “… I don’t want to make the chain of command confusing at all for the unit. [But] very few of the division commanders in Iraq are not personal friends of mine, and so we have a personal trust.”
Robinson instead supports the war effort from afar, and that involves handling matters on the home front.
The home frontHe and his staff were really put to the test three weeks ago when the Defense Department decided to keep the 1st Brigade in Iraq awhile longer. The decision was made, in part, to allow the 3rd Infantry Division, which will be returning to Iraq for a third time, the chance to spend the holidays at home.
Robinson learned of the extension the evening of Sept. 23, a Saturday. Commanders discussed it at length the following day and by Monday word went out to Family Readiness Groups and other community officials.
“There’s been some other times, earlier, when we didn’t think through this quite as well,” Robinson said, alluding to the 2004 extension.
By and large, most spouses took the news in stride, though they clearly weren’t enamored of the idea, based on comments made that week.
Robinson felt the notification process went fairly well because families and soldiers learned of the extension before it became public.
The fact they were notified that far in advance was no accident, either. In 2004, hundreds of 1st AD soldiers, including the chief of staff, had to return to Iraq after having just knocked the dust off their boots back in Germany.
Robinson said he also chose to notify Baumholder leaders on Monday that the 2nd Brigade would not be extended, and then followed it up with a personal visit the following day. Robinson characterized the gesture as “one of the best moves we ever made.” The brigade, which has lost about two dozen soldiers, is still on track to leave Iraq next month.
“Why do you want to put deployed spouses under any more tension than you have to?” Robinson said. “And so this actually kept the tension from building, maybe even relaxed it a little bit, because they had constantly been thinking: ‘Well, maybe we will be extended.’”
Robinson next reached out to the 1st Brigade. At an impromptu town hall meeting on Sept. 27, the general stayed for about three hours answering questions large and small. Robinson said he was awestruck by the spouses’ insistence that nothing back home should disrupt the focus of the soldiers serving in Iraq.
“If that doesn’t make you feel good, to know that their No. 1 concern was not themselves, but (was) making sure that the unit, no matter how small … wasn’t worried about what was going on at home,” Robinson said.
In recent years, most observers agree that military spouses have grown more sophisticated when it comes to such issues. They know a soldier who is distracted is not at his or her best, and Iraq is a place where the littlest mistake can have a compounding affect.
“At about 30 to 45 days out, the stress level goes up in family members,” Robinson said. “It goes up, because they start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The thought of a casualty, when you get that close, is more intense.” And that apprehension, he added, “is a natural tendency.”
Honoring the fallenDuring the division’s first tour to Iraq, it lost 130 soldiers, about 40 after the extension. So far on this deployment, 42 have been killed in action.
Robinson said he attends as many memorial ceremonies as he can because he “owes it to the soldiers” and family members.
But Robinson doesn’t stop there. He personally pens a handwritten letter to each family of a deceased 1st AD soldier.
My staff “knows to leave me alone when I’m writing those letters,” Robinson said. The act alone “causes me to rededicate myself.”