Guardsmen from Indiana earn combat badge
July 30, 2003
The 1st Battalion, 293rd Regiment of the Indiana National Guard fought to protect one of the most strategic airstrips in the early days of the war, earning it one of the Army’s most prestigious infantry medals, the Combat Infantry Badge.
“It’s pretty significant getting pinned while you’re still in the combat area,” said Maj. Ronald Westfall, battalion commander.
To earn the badge, an infantryman must be engaged in documented battle with an enemy as part of an infantry unit.
Members of the 1-293, from Fort Wayne, Ind., arrived at the Talil airstrip in southern Iraq two days after the war’s deadliest battle, where 42 Marines died in an ambush in nearby Nasariyah, Westfall said.
“Talil was still hot when we got there,” Westfall said. “The people we were replacing were having gunfights as they were leaving.”
The battalion took over for a mechanized battalion, using troop strength to compensate for the heavy machinery that took the town.
“Even four days into the war there were pockets of resistance,” said Capt. Wesley Russell, personnel officer and battalion adjutant. “The first two weeks up there, there were some scary times.”
They exchanged small-arms fire and found paramilitary groups attempting to dig up hidden weapons.
“We were finding so many [weapons] a day, the EOD [explosive ordnance disposal team] could not keep up with destroying them,” Westfall said.
The mission to rescue captured U.S. soldier Pfc. Jessica Lynch was launched from Talil, and the airfield later supported special operations forces, air and ground missions.
To protect the airfield from anti-aircraft rockets, the battalion secured a giant swath around the airfield’s perimeter.
They also added security to guard a prisoner of war camp and provided security for some of the earliest meetings between U.S. officials and future leaders of Iraq.
Members of the battalion still guard the base and exchanged gunfire with Iraqis last week, Westfall said.
The battalion is part of the 76th Army National Guard Brigade from Indiana, which had the largest number of Guardsmen activated of any state. Their battalion of 650 is part of an enhanced brigade, designed to replace, rather than augment, active brigades.
The Guard is also preparing for future U.S. missions to Iraq. Acting Army Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane announced last week that up to 100,000 Guardsmen will be activated to replace active-duty troops.
The Army has been reluctant to send Guardsmen into battle, according to a 1999 General Accounting Office report. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Guard brigades were called up but never sent overseas. Some were undertrained or understaffed, the report said.
Westfall said his battalion was selected this time because of its readiness.
“We were able to set the stage for what followed,” Westfall said. “There was a pretty small microscope on us through this thing.”
The group trained at the Joint Readiness Training Center in 2000, completed a command post exercise in Germany headed by former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks in 2001, and served in Bosnia and Herzegovina last year.
By the time they leave Iraq, possibly in September, Westfall and a handful of his soldiers will have done two years of nonstop duty after volunteering for Bosnia and activation to Iraq.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 300,000 Guardsmen and reservists have been activated and nearly 200,000 are active this week, according to the Department of Defense.
Guardsmen, like members of the Reserve, have special pressures. They could have just a few days notice — or less — to turn from civilian to soldier.
Some leave college and take incompletes as a result, including Cpl. David Ritchie from Rensselier, Ind., who was supposed to graduate in May. He had 24 hours’ notice before mobilization.
“A lot of our guys, they sacrificed marriages, they’ve lost businesses,” he said. “There are 600 guys that gave up a lot.”
Laws protect reservists’ jobs, but the Labor Department hears about 1,000 cases of employers breaking that rule each year, veterans’ representatives told Congress last week. The law doesn’t protect students and business owners.
But members of the 1-293 support the role the Guard will play in Iraq’s future.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to be asking Guardsmen to be overseas,” Russell said.
Members of the Guard should expect to be deployed, he said, adding the announcement represents a stamp of approval on their readiness.
“I think it’s the only choice the Army has,” said Spc. Jason Hefner, from Lafayette, Ind. “It’s an opportunity to enhance the role of the Guard. It’s a chance for the Guard to show we are just as professional as the active duty.”