Guarding Iraq ... and missing home
Stars and Stripes June 21, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — It was no pleasure cruise on the Tigris River for soldiers of the Florida and Oregon guards. Instead, boarded on two MK-2 Bridge Erection Boats, the soldiers patrolled the mossy green waterway for gun traffickers who try to circumvent checkpoints on the city’s roadways and bridges.
“There’s a lot of illegal weapons trafficking that goes along the river,” said Lt. Col. Thad Hill, commander of the Florida National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, which got the boats from the 671st Engineering Company of Oregon’s National Guard and a few of its soldiers to operate them.
They’ve found a new use for old equipment.
The Oregon Guard’s boats were to be used to build bridges military leaders thought the Iraqi army would destroy as troops traversed the nation south to north. There wasn’t much of a demand for that use since Iraqi soldiers either didn’t know how to blow the bridges, or simply failed to light the explosives that have been found beneath them, several said.
“You should have seen it,” said Sgt. Troy Wood, 35, a member of the Idaho Army National Guard who volunteered to deploy to Iraq with the Oregon Guard, which brought 14 boats to Iraq. “We were toting these boats clear across a desert. It was the funniest thing.”
As the sun set one Sunday, infantry soldiers donned their sea legs to join the Oregon soldiers to ride up and down the Tigris River in search of smugglers. They found none on that particular run, but rendezvoused with a local who shares information with the soldiers about illegal activity he witnesses.
“They’ve been shot at from this bridge, so keep your eyes open,” team leader and Florida Guard member Sgt. Kreed Howell, 30, of Panama City, Fla., shouted to his troops.
It had been Mission No. 2 for him and his crew that day.
An hour earlier, they had completed a foot patrol on the streets of their sector, greeting residents and checking nooks and crannies for illegal activity.
“It gives us more of a personal touch,” Howell said. “You get more out of being kind to people.”
Their Sunday hour-and-11-minute foot patrol proved uneventful — another successful day, they say. But they did confiscate a toy cap gun from a young boy. The silver gun looked real, and if pointed at a soldier, could prove deadly for a child.
“If someone would have told me I’d be patrolling the streets of Baghdad, especially after so many weeks, I would have said you’re smoking w-a-a-ay too much crack,” Howell said. “But here we are, and we’re doing a good job.”
Instead of watching his daughters Kaylee, 4, and Emma, who turns 1 in August, Howell spent Father’s Day watching over his young soldiers as they patrolled the streets of Sector 17, which includes the run-down neighborhoods of Najib Basha and Waziriyah.
“A Father’s Day present would be hearing ‘You’re entering American airspace.’ ”
Or getting Spc. Terry Whigham, 23, home to see the birth of his first child.
“I’m tickled pink to be a father,” said Whigham, whose son, Dylan, is set to be born in a few weeks.
“It breaks my heart that one of my guys won’t be there when his child is born,” Howell said.
The soldiers of Florida’s National Guard arrived Feb. 17 in Kuwait and have been in Baghdad now for more than seven weeks.
It’s taking a toll on morale, said Maj. John Haas, the battalion’s operations officer. “They’re getting a little fatigued.”
The Guard soldiers crossed the berm from Kuwait into Iraq right behind soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, and fought their way up to Baghdad. Once in Baghdad, they worked to control some of the rougher and tougher parts of the city.
“We were right behind the 3rd ID, leaping into battle,” said Capt. Rodney Sanchez, Alpha Company’s commander.
The guardsmen were a bit ill-trained for the urban warfare, having trained in Georgia’s woodlands. But they relied on several mates who had prior active-duty service, mates including Sgt. Tyler Brunell, 25, a former active-duty Ranger who taught them many of the ins and outs of kicking in doors and moving from building to building without getting their heads shot off.
And they came ill-equipped. Their biggest gripe is over their antiquated flak vests.
More than half of the battalion is college students who have already missed their fall and summer semesters.
“If they’re not back by August, they’ll have missed a full year,” Hill, the Florida Guard’s 3rd Battalion commander, said.
But they’re not looking for pity — just a “go home” date, that light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, several said.
However, leaders are worried that the long deployment might hurt recruitment and retention in the guard. Soldiers who sign up often think of the guard as the units who aid in floods and hurricanes and civil unrest — in the United States.
“The price to be in the National Guard may be too steep and more than they’re willing to pay,” Haas said.
But there’s the glory, for lack of a better word, of having seen combat, Haas added.
“The day after they get back, they’ll go to the parades and see their families, and be heroes, and those hardships will quickly be forgotten.”