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04-30-06, 06:31 PM #1
'Redheaded stepchild' unit heads home from Iraq, mission done, stigma gone
April 30, 2006
'Redheaded stepchild' unit heads home from Iraq, mission done, stigma gone
By CHARLES J. HANLEY
ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AP) - Down at the motor pool the aroma of diesel fills the air. The mechanics, wrenches at the ready, are standing by for an incoming convoy, out there somewhere kicking up dust on the last leg home. Helicopters clatter overhead. A warming sun floats slowly up into a wide blue sky.
It's another beautiful morning in the desert, a workday at war. But for Capt. Jim Shuman's "wrench turners" and the rest of the men of the 1st Battalion, 118th Field Artillery, it's Georgia, not Iraq, that's on their minds.
"What they're talking about is going home," says the smiling motor pool boss.
More than visions of home, however, these Georgia National Guardsmen, soon to exit Iraq, carry with them the freeze frames of a year at war - faces of friends lost, snapshots of friends made, memories of dread and boredom, aches and pains of injuries and hard work, and a sense of what they've accomplished.
"We've broken through the stigma," said Shuman. "Vindicated," said his motor sergeant. No more "redheaded stepchild," said the first sergeant.
For "Hickory's Howitzers," a 650-man battalion, part of their job was to redeem a tarnished past, says their quiet-spoken commander, Lt.-Col. Don Beard.
This battalion's past runs three centuries deep in Savannah, back to the revolution. They fought on through other American wars, up to Normandy and the Ardennes in the Second World War, picking up their nickname when attached to the 30th (Old Hickory) Infantry Division. A rainbow of campaign ribbons streamed from the battalion flag. But in 1991 the glory ended.
Called up for the first Gulf War with the rest of the Georgia Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade, the 118th Field Artillery trained, and retrained, and trained some more in the California desert. And in the end the army declared the entire brigade unfit for combat.
"We were slandered," Shuman's motor sergeant, Master Sgt. Robert Stiner, 44, angrily recalled. "Seventy-two days of hard training. Left you with an empty feeling," remembered First Sgt. Bruce Oliver, 58.
Beard, 44, a young battery commander at the time, said the 48th Infantry Brigade simply got caught in "a political quagmire."
Congress in the 1980s had told the Pentagon to rely more on Guard and Reserve units in future emergency mobilizations. But the regular army viewed the "weekend warriors" as inferior troops. All three National Guard brigades called up in 1990 were rejected.
Twelve years on, the U.S. invasion of Iraq troubled many Americans and alienated much of the world, but it gave the brigade and the Howitzers their chance.
"We were looking forward to doing the mission," said Maj. Randall Simmons, 35, Beard's executive officer.
The battalion's mission took them first to eastern Iraq, where they ran patrols for four months, and then to this former Iraqi air base in the western desert, a stony wasteland dotted with nomads, camels and roadside bombs.
The artillerymen's new mission: escorting huge convoys of fuel tankers to their fill-up point in far-off Jordan and back.
Taking over from a regular army unit, the Guardsmen immediately felt some regular old neglect - poor facilities, supplies, support. They had no headquarters, dispensary, offices. Half the vehicles they inherited were unserviceable.
"It was bad, a whole lot of broken vehicles," said the motor pool's Staff Sgt. Kenneth Waters, 31. "We didn't have a motor pool. We had a dust bowl. We were on our own, treated differently as always."
"The only thing the army gave us was lip service," said the veteran Oliver. "We're the redheaded stepchild."
So the citizen soldiers from Georgia - an all-male force of contractors and electricians, handymen and car mechanics, cops and computer geeks - went to work.
They took over the big shower rooms of an old Iraqi swimming pool and put up walls, hung doors, wired up lighting and laptops to make an operations centre. In their tent housing area, Master Sgt. Floyd Bacon, 43, a small-town contractor, rounded up skilled comrades and erected a sturdy wooden building to house a clinic, mailroom and other offices.
Marines helped with lumber. The local Seabees - navy engineers - threw in advice. When they ran low on nails, they turned to the Iraqis hawking hardware beneath the stands of the base's old stadium.
Shuman's crew, meanwhile, became the strategic core of a new mission, crucial to keeping 150 vehicles on the road, many of them making three-day, 965-kilometre round trip runs guarding the civilian fuel tankers.
His 55-man unit created a genuine motor pool, building wooden offices, raising two large repair-shop tents, and grappling with a slew of problems. One army supply foul-up, for example, left them short on Humvee wheels, forcing them to hurriedly fit scores of big tires to rims by hand.
The harsh conditions of war, desert and potholed roads challenged the wrench turners daily. The grit-coated convoys would return with bullet holes, damage from roadside bombs, and general wear and tear. The Humvees' power steering, in particular, kept Shuman's mechanics under the chassis for long hours.
"And getting parts is a challenge. You don't have overnight UPS here," the captain said with a laugh.
When the army supply network failed, they scrounged and scavenged for parts, they improvised. Before long the motor pool got its desert-tan fleet back up to over 97 per cent "operational readiness."
"We took an artillery unit and put them on wheels," motor sergeant Stiner said proudly, leaning back in his chair.
They succeeded because of older, experienced hands - among them a tractor repairman, a master Toyota mechanic and five men who usually work as civilian technicians on army equipment in Georgia.
"We've got guys who are a lot better than some active-duty guy just out high school," said Shuman, himself a purchasing agent for motor parts in civilian life.
Not only are National Guard soldiers more mature and experienced, but as neighbours, even family, they can be more of a team, said chaplain Maj. Richard Graves.
"You've got uncles, fathers, cousins joining up - an extended family," he said. "They bring years of continuity."
By the same token, he said, "it hits them harder when they lose somebody."
The 48th Infantry Brigade suffered 26 members killed in Iraq, its first combat casualties since the Second World War. The 118th Field Artillery lost none to enemy action, but two men died in accidents and a third of natural causes, and others were wounded by bomb blasts.
Here, as at home, some question the war. "The big mission of winning hearts and minds - whether that's going well is anybody's guess," said Shuman.
But, he said, "there's a great sense of accomplishment in doing our part. We've gotten the active-duty guys to realize we're a total force."
In fact, nationwide more than 250,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves have been called to duty during the Afghanistan and Iraq operations.
"There was a bias against the National Guard," said battalion commander Beard. "Now this war has caused this barrier to be breached."
The battalion will return by mid-May to families and jobs, with knees aching from long Humvee rides and shoulders sore from the weight of body armour. They'll also have a claim to a new campaign streamer, for an old battalion flag that will hang again soon in the armoury on Savannah's Eisenhower Drive.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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