All work and no play for Illesheim rear detachment
December 27, 2002
ILLESHEIM, Germany — Since her unit deployed to Kuwait in October, Staff Sgt. Angela Hendricks wakes up early each morning for PT, works long, hard hours, and falls into bed each night, exhausted.
A single mom, Hendricks spent Christmas thousands of miles from her 5-year-old daughter, Lashawndra, who has stayed with her grandparents in the States since the deployment began.
Yet Hendricks, 29, sleeps in her own bed in Germany each night, not in a remote camp with the rest of the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. As the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Apache helicopter unit’s rear detachment, she works in a tiring kind of limbo: neither bonding with her squadron mates in the desert nor enjoying a happy home life with her family.
“I’m a mechanic, a squadron shop foreman. I work on trucks, and now I’m doing administrative work,” Hendricks said. “I have 17 soldiers downrange, and I’d like to be with them.”
Hendricks doesn’t complain. But without question, manning the home garrison is a dreary, thankless job for most soldiers left behind. It usually means toiling in unfamiliar duty, nagged by guilt and disappointment. You miss out on the fun and danger of deployment. The better the soldier, the worse he or she feels.
“Sergeant Hendricks didn’t want to stay behind,” said Lt. Col. Scott Thompson, the squadron commander, by telephone from Kuwait. “She is a stellar NCO. I felt like I was cutting my throat not to bring her along.”
When Army units deploy, they must leave behind a handful of soldiers to guard the home base. They ship mail and spare parts to the field, help soldiers who are leaving or arriving at the unit, and pass both official and personnel messages between the field commanders and families back home.
“It’s as vital, as important, as the mission downrange,” said Col. Albert Johnson, chief of staff of the 1st Infantry Division’s Schweinfurt-based 2nd Brigade, which just completed a six-month peacekeeping tour in Kosovo. “[The rear detachment commander] is the conduit to our families.”
Typically, 10 percent or less of the unit stays back. Army regulations require that soldiers who are injured or pregnant, who have recently given birth or who are within 45 days of leaving the command must not deploy. These soldiers make up most of the rear detachment.
Still, commanders have learned from hard experience to pick quality people who know the families and communicate well. The last thing they need is trouble with the families at home.
“[Colonel Thompson] promised the spouses, ‘I’m going to leave you a good rear detachment,’” said Lisa Eichhorn, whose husband is a chief warrant officer and Apache pilot in the squadron. “‘I won’t leave you the sick and broken people.’”
For Thompson, Capt. Shana Richardson turned out to be a perfect choice for a rear detachment commander. She had been the squadron’s personnel officer for two years, so she understood the inprocessing and outprocessing paperwork she would spend much of her time handling. Because she was coming off of maternity leave, she couldn’t go to Kuwait for several months, anyway. And she got on well with Thompson’s wife, Kathy, the head of the 2-6 Cavalry’s Family Readiness Group.
“She was perfectly suited for the job,” Thompson said.
Richardson said she wasn’t surprised when he tabbed her for the job since she couldn’t go to Kuwait.
“I’m fortunate that I can be here with my baby,” she said.
Still, she feels like she’s missing something. She gets the unit’s newsletters from the desert, filled with stories and freshly minted nicknames and inside jokes she doesn’t understand. Officially, the 2-6 Cavalry is training in Kuwait, though it is an open secret the units are preparing for a possible assault on Iraq.
“There’s a camaraderie, a closeness that they get from being downrange,” Richardson said. “I miss the joking, the having fun, the picking on people.”
Richardson’s husband, Josh, was a soldier for nine years and now is working full-time on his bachelor’s degree through online college courses and caring for 4½-month-old Abigail.
Josh said he sometimes stays away from officers’ spouse functions since he is one of the lucky few who is not here alone. And Shana stays mostly at home, fearing wives with husbands in harm’s way might resent it if she appeared to be having fun.
“Shana hates to be seen out of uniform, even at the PX up in Würzburg, because she might run into someone,” he said.
Richardson and Hendricks spend most of the day on the phone, scrounging for soldiers to ferry spare helicopter parts or departing personnel to Ramstein and Rhein-Main air bases several hours away. Others still must help out at the gym, rake leaves or guard equipment.
“We have to maintain all the squadron’s normal duties,” Hendricks said. “Business has to go on as usual.”
Thompson has ordered Richardson and Hendricks to keep the squadron’s office open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which means one of them must stay there at all times. Still they must represent the squadron at regimental meetings, whether they’re familiar with the topic or not.
Each year the squadron gathers toys for a group of German children from a local orphanage. Thompson wanted that tradition to continue, even with the squadron absent, so Richardson handled it largely by herself.
“When we’re done here, we’re going to be two well-rounded soldiers,” Richardson said of herself and her NCOIC. “We’re learning a little bit about everyone’s job.”
Typically, a rear detachment does its job with a dwindling supply of help. Thompson said he left about 40 soldiers behind in October. That number has since dwindled to about 25, with three more scheduled to leave this past week. Most of the rest, he said, are focusing on their own impending departures for schools or new assignments.
“It will continue to get smaller and smaller,” Thompson said. “You have a really small core of about six or seven people who do all of the work.”
Hendricks is doing her best to look at the bright side. She said it’s been a tough adjustment, but she is now learning how her new job works. She knows she’ll profit from knowing something about so many different jobs. And, her daughter will be coming back to Germany in a couple of weeks.
Spc. Krzysztof Sobesiak, 27, stayed behind with the rear detachment to get surgery on an injured shoulder. While he’s recovering, he’s working in the Illesheim community mail room, helping with the flood of holiday mail between the base and Kuwait. He expressed the mixed-up feelings of many soldiers who wind up on garrison duty.
“Of course, I would rather be down there,” Sobesiak said as he helped mail room customers last week. “But this is my job right now. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”