Local Guards again prepare for Iraq dutyDozens of St. Croix County residents are busy preparing for a one-year tour of duty in Iraq. Wisconsin’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the state’s largest National Guard unit, has received orders that they will be deployed to active duty sometime in mid-February 2009.
By: By Jeff Holmquist, Hudson Star-Observer
Dozens of St. Croix County residents are busy preparing for a one-year tour of duty in Iraq.
Wisconsin’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the state’s largest National Guard unit, has received orders that they will be deployed to active duty sometime in mid-February 2009. Once in Iraq, most of the soldiers will be assigned to security tasks as part of the ongoing war.
Among the Guard units that will be involved in the mobilization are New Richmond’s Company B, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry unit and River Falls’ Company D, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry unit. The units include 12 Guards with Hudson addresses. The largest group comes from River Falls (38), followed by New Richmond (25) and Hudson.
Guard officials report that part-time soldiers from every county in Wisconsin will be part of the mobilization. Soldiers from Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois are also members of the Wisconsin Guard and will serve overseas.
About 3,500 soldiers will be part of the biggest mobilization of Wisconsin-based troops to a combat zone since World War II.
“What we’ve got coming up in the next 16 months is a really big deal,” said Lt. Col. Tim Donovan with the Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs office. “Sixty-eight years ago is the last time we did something this big.”
A year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wisconsin troops were deployed to duty. They eventually served in the South Pacific, North Africa and Europe. The division eventually became part of the occupying force in Japan.
This time, the Brigade and its attached units expect to spend about two months at Fort Bliss in Texas prior to shipping out. Then they will travel to Iraq in early spring to relieve a New Jersey National Guard brigade that is presently serving there.
The Wisconsin Guardsmen are expected to be in Iraq for about 10 months before returning home to their families and jobs.
“This is a big, big animal,” Donovan said of the logistics involved in preparing for the mobilization. “It will be tough to get our arms around it.”
Most of the state’s National Guard units have already been previously deployed overseas over the past few years. In fact, about half of the soldiers expected to be part of the 2009 deployment have active duty experience.
“We have a pretty deep pool of (experienced) leadership,” Anderson said. “It should translate into a much smoother transition. Will it translate into a safer environment for our soldiers? I hope so.”
Local units are among those with previous combat zone experience.
New Richmond and River Falls served in Iraq in 2004-05. Other units have served at various times from 2003-2007. About 116 Wisconsin soldiers are presently deployed in Iraq.
The upcoming mobilization is different, according to Brigadier General Mark Anderson, because units aren’t being called up individually to fill troop and support needs in Iraq.
“The deployment of the 32nd Brigade is unique in the fact that it’s a single organization going over at one time,” Anderson said. “There is a tremendous amount of impact that has on our organization, upon our soldiers and upon their families that we have to be cognizant of and be proactive with.”
The Brigade as a whole is now better prepared to meet the challenges of combat duty, thanks in part to previous experience and specialized training over the past year.
“These young soldiers are training to go into combat,” Donovan said. “They know it and do they take it seriously.”
It’s a far cry from the National Guard of the 1970s and ’80s when overseas deployment was hardly on anyone’s radar, Donovan explained.
“It’s just a strikingly different organization,” he said. “These people take their business with deadly seriousness, because it is a deadly, serious business.”
Donovan said the Wisconsin Guard’s troop strength is 98 percent of its authorized level, which is an indication that soldiers are joining despite the fact that a war in underway.
“They’re joining a National Guard that they know likely will go to war,” he said.
Anderson said the leadership is committed to providing all the necessary training to give soldiers the best chance at surviving their tour of duty.
“Our bottom line is to make sure our soldiers are prepared and properly trained to do their mission,” he said. “To go overseas, to do their mission and ... come home safe.”
But preparation includes more than just a focus on combat training. Another challenge is taking care of families who remain home while soldiers deploy, Anderson said.“We’re all part of one big family,” he said of the Guard’s commitment to helping. Seven Family Support Groups have formed across the state to provide assistance and support during overseas mobilizations.
Donovan said the ramped up training and deployment can cause great strain for soldiers and families. It can also cause problems for employers, who must guarantee jobs for employees who are returning from Iraq.
Several meetings have already been held with family members and employers to answer any questions they may have. Additional gatherings are planned as the mobilization approaches.
“There’s a lot of things we do to help,” Donovan said. “We stay in touch with them (families and employers) throughout this entire experience until the soldiers come home and are reunited with their families.”
About 6,000 Wisconsin Guard members will remain in the state throughout the 2009-10 overseas deployment to be available for floods and other emergencies that might crop up.
“A lot of people are surprised that the National Guard is going to places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” Donovan said. “They ask, ‘Isn’t that what the Army is for? Aren’t you guys supposed to be sandbagging the Kickapoo River?’ We’re supposed to be doing both.”
Wisconsin troops have been involved in numerous combat roles since the Civil War, Donovan said.
“It’s what we do,” he said. “We are all part of the nation’s armed forces.”
Even with the mid-February date now set, Donovan said it is possible that mobilization orders could change.
With the nation’s political landscape on the verge of possible change, the Brigade’s orders could shift to a new assignment or no assignment at all. But for 32nd Brigade officials, it’s full steam ahead as far as they’re concerned.
“We’re expecting no change,” Donovan said. “If it changes, we will adjust to the change. We’re expecting to mobilize as currently ordered.”
Wisconsin Guard history
Wisconsin Militia troops served in combat roles during the Civil War.
World War I saw units mobilized for combat on numerous occasions.