Two months into the 32nd Brigade Combat Team's missions in Iraq, this is an update on some of our units from their locations around the country.
by Lt. Col. Tim Donovan, 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team
BAGHDAD (PRESS RELEASE) -- They have endured frequent dust storms and intense heat. They've overcome language and cultural barriers. They've worked long days with little time off. They have missed the births of their sons and daughters. And they've been living and working in multiple locations in an active combat zone.
They are the nearly 3,300 soldiers of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, two months into their 10-month missions in Iraq.
Even before the 32nd was formally ordered to active duty, the brigade's soldiers learned they would not be employed overseas as an infantry brigade combat team. Instead, many were trained for a number of different missions that bore little resemblance to the things that infantry brigade units would normally do. Artillerymen and engineers would run detention facilities; infantry soldiers would train Iraqi prison guards; cavalry troopers would become military base administrators. While some of the brigade soldiers' assignments were similar to conventional combat missions, most were not.
So the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team's soldiers adapted.
At Camps Bucca, Cropper and Taji, more than 1,400 soldiers work in theater internment facilities - TIFs, as they are called here - where they are responsible for securing detainees and treating them humanely. It's not the kind of job their infantry, engineer, artillery or transportation units are normally expected to do. But in Iraq, soldiers do the things that need doing. For now, U.S. forces are responsible for running these TIFs until detainees are either released or the mission is transferred to Iraq.
"As a transportation company, our current mission is quite a change for these soldiers and many were unsure of what to expect," said 1st Lt. Joshua Porter, commander of the 1158th Transportation Company of Beloit and Black River Falls.
The 1158th is among a half dozen Wisconsin Guard units working at the TIFs at Camp Cropper, one of a cluster of camps on Victory Base Complex near the Baghdad International Airport.
"I am proud of all the soldiers and their ability to adapt to the change in mission requirements," Porter said. "Soldiers work every day [and] night with Iraqis and third country nationals. They are learning amazing things about the Iraqi culture as well as overcoming language and cultural barriers as they work alongside Iraqi correctional officers."
Other units have different missions at Camp Cropper.
Headquarters Troop of 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry is in charge of all the administrative functions at Cropper. The Madison-based unit operates the "mayor cell" and is responsible for base support operations: ensuring everyone at Cropper has adequate living and working conditions, and essentials such as water, food and power.
"All these functions ensure the tenants of FOB Cropper, whether they are guards, linguists, doctors and medics, or food handlers, are able to focus solely on their job and perform their mission," said Spc. Allen Doan, unit public affairs specialist for the squadron.
While the Madison-based Headquarters Troop is running the base, soldiers of Watertown's Troop B are keeping it secure. Bravo Troop's primary mission is force protection, which includes manning entry control points and conducting quick reaction force operations.
"Our work is really to keep an eye out for vulnerabilities so those living on base can focus on their job and not be distracted by the great number of security issues that pertain to base defense," said 1st Lt. Christopher Szopinski, a platoon leader with Bravo Troop.
Bravo Troop 1st Sgt. Thomas Bruss says the soldiers are doing well and doing good things as they work to keep Camp Cropper secure. "It is a challenging task given the 12-hour days, much of which is spent out in the heat of the day," Bruss said. "Many of our soldiers appreciate their role in Iraq during this historic transition."
Co. B of the 257th Brigade Support Battalion has been adjusting to its new job as a detainee guard force company at Camp Cropper and establishing what soldiers call their "battle rhythm."
The Kenosha-based company's commander, Capt. Sean Phelps, describes the unit's work there as a difficult mission that requires long hours of his 125 soldiers. "But they've kept a positive attitude and a level of professionalism that the state of Wisconsin should be very proud of," Phelps said.
Seven of those soldiers extended their service in the Wisconsin National Guard at a re-enlistment ceremony June 30.
Another unit at Camp Cropper is Battery B, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery from Stevens Point. According to the battery commander, Capt. Daniel Hendershot, his unit's mission at Cropper's theater internment facility puts his troops at "the tip of the spear" in the war on terrorism.
"We treat all detained persons under our custody with dignity and respect although it isn't always given back," Hendershot said. "Our humane treatment of detainees is what ultimately saves lives in the long term."
One of Bravo Battery's soldiers, Spc. Flavio Cottrell, was sworn in as a new U.S. citizen by the vice president of the United States on July 4. Vice President Joe Biden and the top commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, presided over a naturalization ceremony at Al Faw Palace on Victory Base.
"You are the reason America is strong," Biden told Cottrell and 236 other soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. "You are the source of our freedom - you and all who come before you."
Headquarters and Company A of 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry are located on another part of Victory Base Complex called FOB Future, where they were responsible for establishing an academy to train Iraqi correctional officers. Training is done by Iraqis, with Wisconsin Guard troops providing resources and support.
"This facility, from the ground up, has been designed to be the leading edge of the American withdrawal of forces from Iraq," said 2nd Lt. Christopher Cahak of Menomonie-based Alpha Company, 1-128th Infantry. "It's an incredibly important mission, we take it very seriously and this mission has been handed to the Wisconsin National Guard."
The Wisconsin Guard soldiers work side by side with Iraqis to build a professional correctional officer corps that will ensure the Iraqi corrections system meets international standards.
The Appleton, Green Bay and Fond du Lac units of 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry have about 375 soldiers on duty at Camp Bucca, in the far south of Iraq near Umm Qasr. These troops are providing force protection for the camp.
"We're teamed up with the U.S. Air Force and we patrol the surrounding area to ensure that no mortars or rockets are fired at the camp," said Maj. John Oakley, the 2-127th's executive officer. In addition to area patrols, the battalion is also responsible for perimeter and route security, and conducts detainee transfers.
Also working at Bucca is the Portage-based headquarters of the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion and its Alpha Company from Janesville and Elkhorn, in charge of life support and administrative functions at the camp. These units and their 155 soldiers are sometimes called on to do things well outside their normal responsibilities.
Like building a 3.1 million gallon lagoon for the camp's new water plant.
The 132nd's facility engineering team - from a unit without an engineer mission - selected the site and designed the project, then excavated 21,700 cubic yards of earth and hauled it away. Some of the soldiers had never operated heavy equipment before, but they learned on the job and got the three-week mission accomplished safely. It helps when National Guard units have soldiers with civilian skills in the construction trades.
Co. A of the 32nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion is one of several Wisconsin units operating a TIF at Camp Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad. "Everyone is trying to find the best ways to get the detainees' needs met and avoid letting the workload get to us," said Capt. Shaun Vele, the Onalaska-based company's commander, in a newsletter to unit members' families.
"Things here do not come easily," Vele said, "but we have a strong group of soldiers and everyone is here to watch out for one another."
At Forward Operating Base Grizzly, near Ashraf, daily temperatures have been reaching around 113 degrees, but 2nd Lt. Robert Formolo, a platoon leader with Co. C, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, reports it feels more like 120 degrees or hotter. "This is nothing that we cannot handle," Formolo wrote in a newsletter to families back in Wisconsin. He knows temperatures will soar higher over the next two months.
Another platoon leader with Charlie Company, 1st Lt. Jeremiah Littmann, described the unit's working conditions through early July: "So far the days are long, hot, and even a little dull at times," Littmann said.
In a combat zone, "dull" can be a good thing.
Charlie Company's missions at FOB Grizzly include force protection and providing a quick reaction force for the base. Some changes are in the works, with part of the unit recently re-missioned to provide many of the same services at a different location.
The company commander assured loved ones that the soldiers who will be moved will do just fine. "They are fully capable of these missions and I have the utmost confidence in them," Capt. Andrew Weiler wrote in the family newsletter.
Company C is based in Arcadia with a detachment in Onalaska.
Another of the company's missions at FOB Grizzly evolved since the unit arrived there. Spc. Scott Gates is a firefighter back in his Wisconsin hometown of Elroy, so he took on the duties of assistant fire chief at the base. He also works with other members of the Wisconsin Guard with firefighting experience and they are training additional volunteers on basic firefighting skills. When fire broke out in a containerized housing unit last month, Gates and his volunteers were called to action with good results: the fire heavily damaged the CHU, but no one was injured and the volunteers prevented it from spreading to nearby buildings.
Some of the best things that happen to deployed soldiers take place many miles from where they serve.
One brigade unit, Alpha Troop of the 105th Cavalry, is based in Baghdad but operates at other locations with a security-related mission. Perhaps the most interesting detail that can be released about this 120-soldier Fort Atkinson unit is a recent baby boom. Since they have been in Iraq, four soldiers became new dads - as babies Connor, Aubrie, Addyson and Colton were born back home in Wisconsin.
Two months into their missions here, 32nd Brigade soldiers have settled in - to new surroundings, different jobs, long hours and desert conditions.
Two things that Wisconsin's soldiers experience wherever they are in Iraq are blinding dust storms and searing heat. Dust storms turn the sky brownish orange - sometimes for several days at a time - and reduce visibility to 100 feet or less. Such conditions ground flights, restrict road movements and force soldiers to cover their mouths and noses with makeshift facemasks. It's not pleasant.
Then there's the heat. Soldiers' memories of Wisconsin weather are fading, but most of the troops here would recall a hot day back home to be in the 90s. The hottest temperature seen in Iraq so far? At Camp Bucca, one officer claims to have seen a thermometer reading of 139 degrees. And it's not even the hot season yet.
The 32nd Brigade is scheduled to return to Wisconsin in early 2010, when soldiers expect they will be greeted by late January temperatures a bit cooler than they are experiencing now in Iraq.
Maybe 170 degrees cooler.
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