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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — The 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s tour in Iraq was watched closely by soldiers in South Korea, many of whom helped train the unit before it left.

Spc. Gil Paeste, 21, of Company A, 6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment arrived in South Korea in December 2002 and has extended his tour twice under the Army’s Assignment Incentive Pay (AIP) program, which pays soldiers extra for extending their stay on the peninsula. The Los Angeles native recalled the shock 2nd ID soldiers felt when they first heard troops from South Korea were to be deployed to Iraq.

“It was like, we are already deployed. What is the point of sending us?” he said.

While all the soldiers in the division thought they might deploy, small groups of soldiers ended up going to Kuwait to help 2nd Brigade, called Strike Force, prepare vehicles for the push north to Ramadi, Iraq.

“You can tell who those guys are because they are the only ones in South Korea who wear the 2nd ID patch on the right side,” he said. Soldiers who serve in a combat zone can wear their unit patches on their right sleeve.

Paeste noted the casualties within the unit. The soldiers were usually killed by makeshift bombs, something training offers scant protection against, he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Mitchell of Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, U.S. Army Garrison Camp Casey, was a platoon sergeant with the 2nd Engineer Battalion when news came that another 2nd ID engineer unit, the 44th Engineer Battalion, would deploy to Iraq with Strike Force.

“Battalions are supplemented with Korean soldiers, so we knew that we would be asked to give some of our soldiers to the 44th to make up for these losses. We would be losing 30 percent of our soldiers to make up for their shortcomings … that evening I went door to door and talked with every soldier to see if they wanted to volunteer. If there was any question whatsoever, I placed ‘No’ by their name,” he wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

“The next morning I sat at a table and selected which of my soldiers would be going. It was a numbing experience, and when we finished with the meeting I went to each soldier’s room to inform them they would be going. Each knew when they opened their doors and saw me there what it meant,” the San Angelo, Texas, native said.

Mitchell said eight of his friends have been killed in action.

Another soldier serving in South Korea when Strike Force deployed, Spc. Brian Huff, 20, of the Materiel Retrograde Company, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion, said some soldiers from his unit transferred to the 302nd Brigade Support Battalion, which deployed to the desert with 2nd Brigade.

“During the train-up, my job was to get all their weapons up to standard,” Huff recalled.

Despite the extensive training given to Strike Force, the young soldier said South Korea wasn’t the best environment to prepare for an Iraq mission.

“If you look around here, it’s all mountains. There are mountains in Iraq, but not everywhere,” he said.

Pvt. Colt Rankin, 22, also of the 702nd, said he prepared to go to the desert when he got news that troops from South Korea were going last year.

“We did land navigation, convoy movements, weapons qualification,” he said.

When the 702nd chose the soldiers who would deploy, the rest of the unit trained them to the best of their ability, he said.

Huff and Rankin said they knew several Strike Force soldiers and got news about their adventures from other members of the unit. But it had been several months since they heard from them, they said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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