National Guard: Jacks of all trades in Iraq
Stars and Stripes December 31, 2004
TAJI, Iraq — Spc. Gary Trabuscio lies prone on the M88 recovery vehicle, tinkering with the engine of the monstrous tracked machine.
In the National Guard, the 24-year-old is a vehicle mechanic assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry. At home in Staten Island, Trabuscio is a cop with the New York Police Department’s school safety division.
What do those jobs have in common?
“Nothing at all,” he says with a laugh.
Back home, Spc. Paul Dwyer, a 25-year-old from Lynbrook, N.Y., scans documents into computers for a law firm. In Iraq, he’s also a mechanic with the 1st of the 69th.
“That’s why I joined the Guard, to learn how to work on all kinds of vehicles,” Dwyer says.
As the third wave of U.S. troops arrives in Iraq, their numbers include more National Guard and Reserve units than ever. And for the citizen-soldiers, their civilian jobs may have something, or nothing, to do with their military specialty.
Consider, for example, these soldiers and their tasks: Spc. Joshua Suire, 22, Crowley, La., mortar platoon; student. Sgt. Shelley Landry, 29, Lafayette, La., general’s staff; occupational health tester. Staff Sgt. Robert Burns, 36, New Iberia, La., infantry; sheriff’s deputy. Pfc. Ronald Boudreaux, 20, Gramercy, La., artillery; construction.
National Guard units have always been activated for a variety of tasks. Since 1969, for example, the 1st of the 69th from New York City has been called up for a postal strike, a state prison guard strike, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and now for service in Iraq.
The 256th Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from Louisiana, was activated during the last war with Iraq but did not deploy. This time, they were activated, sent to Fort Hood, Texas, and the National Training Center in California, and now operate in an area north and west of Baghdad, falling under command of the 1st Cavalry Division.
National Guard units currently make up nearly 40 percent of the 150,000 U.S. troops in and around Iraq, officials say. An additional 8,000 are in Afghanistan, according to the head of the National Guard Bureau.
There have been 100,000 Guard soldiers activated in the United States or overseas at any given time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, officials said. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said the total number of Army National Guard and Army Reserve on active duty is 159,972.
Sgt. Javish Rosa, 25, New York City, infantry; previous active-duty Army. Cpl. Lou Olander, 21, New York, N.Y., medic; residential building doorman. Staff Sgt. Feliberto Rivery, 47, Bronx, N.Y., infantry; school maintenance worker. Sgt. Wayne Rabinowitz, 57, New York, N.Y., unit clerk; full-time National Guard.
Back home on Long Island, Lt. Col. Geoff Slack runs a third-generation tree-trimming business, as he calls it. More technically, he jokes, he can be called an arborist.
In Iraq, he commands the 1st of the 69th, and goes into the field so often that he has two personal security teams which work on shifts. Slack has quickly gained a reputation among his soldiers as a driven man who expects a lot from his men, but who gives the same in return. Some who haven’t known him for long thought he was a cop or firefighter in his civilian life.
One of the great things about the Guard, Slack says, is how long many of the soldiers in the unit have known one another. He’s known some of his soldiers and their families for nearly two decades. But that closeness can have a downside.
The Fighting 69th, a nickname the battalion earned in the Civil War, has suffered three deaths since arriving in Iraq. Another six soldiers have been wounded so badly they will not return to service.
“It hits you hard. Very hard,” Slack says. “When we get back to New York, I need to be able to look those families in the eye and tell them their loss meant something.”
Sgt. Donald Pinkston, 34, Greenwood, Miss., infantry; State Department Diplomatic Security Service. Sgt. Luis Villegas, 23, New York, N.Y., infantry; college student. Capt. Martin Ortiz, 45, Los Angeles, Calif., medic; pediatrician. Spc. Jason Garcia, 24, New York, N.Y., legal clerk/public affairs; hip-hop music industry.
Sgt. Brad Domingue, a 26-year-old from Carencro, La., serves as a medic with the 2nd Battalion, 156th Infantry Regiment. For the past six years, he has worked as an emergency medical technician on an ambulance crew.
His military job dovetails perfectly with his civilian occupation, sometimes in surprising ways. A few weeks back, during a raid on a compound near Baghdad, Domingue was working with troops keeping security around the target.
As U.S. troops tried to overcome language barriers and allow some local traffic to pass through the area, Domingue’s medical training came into play. He checked the medication and heart-monitor readout of one man in the car, determining that he had a serious medical condition and was on the way to the hospital. The car was allowed through; its occupants profusely thanked the soldiers.
When he gets back home from Iraq, Domingue said, he’s thinking of starting his own private ambulance company with one of his former co-workers.
Spc. Darrick Jefferson, 25, Boyce, La., water purification; security guard. Master Sgt. Rudy Brown, 56, New Orleans, logistics; state food services adviser. Sgt. Chris Blanchard, 24, Broussard, La., supply; wireless phone sales. Sgt. 1st Class Mary Magee, 37, Alexandria, La., personnel services noncommissioned officer; full-time National Guard.
Maj. Lee Wright, 41, of Crowley, La., serves as the 256th Brigade’s information operations officer. As he describes it, his job is to synchronize and coordinate the messages of the psychological operations, public affairs and civil affairs teams.
“It’s kind of like being an orchestra conductor,” he says.
In his civilian life, Wright is a food chemist for a company that produces additive blends for sports nutrition products and other consumables. His job has come into play in Iraq in a few surprising ways.
Within the 256th’s area of operations, he said, is a pharmaceutical plant the locals are trying to get working again. Back home, Wright was doing research-and-development work with the type of equipment being used at the plant in Iraq. His experience also helps in the largely agricultural area where the brigade is operating.
“In our business back home, we have extensive interactions with the rice, wheat and corn industries, from the basic level through processing,” Wright said. “This being a predominantly agricultural area, I’ve already started using those contacts to help with that.”