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Editor’s note: As a special service for our readers, WND has been running a series of dispatches from Allan Wall chronicling his transition from civilian life as he prepared to fight with his National Guard unit in Iraq. Allan is now over in Iraq and will write for us as often as he is able to let our readers vicariously experience what people in his position are going through. We hope you will check regularly for Allan’s dispatches and encourage your friends and family to do likewise.
What does it mean to call up the National Guard? What does it mean to send a National Guard unit to Iraq? To answer that question, you would have to examine the lives of every guardsman, since each one has his own story, his own background, his own family. My Texas National Guard unit is answering that question right now.
In my previous “DISPATCHES FROM IRAQ” (1 through 40) I described how our unit trained and prepared for duty in Iraq. Now it’s time to continue the story, and recount the end of the stateside preparation phase, the final farewell to our families, our journey to the Middle East and the ongoing performance of our mission in Iraq.
Since 9-11, National Guardsmen, long derided as “weekend warriors,” have been doing their fair share of U.S. military operations, both stateside and abroad. The Guard has made its contribution. And more than a few guardsmen have fallen in defense of our nation.
Guardsmen are proud of the work they do. Many specifically volunteered for duty in Iraq. Like other soldiers, they desire to complete the mission and return home. Activating a National Guard unit has some things in common with the deployment of a regular Army unit. But some things are different. Guardsmen are civilians with a military commitment. In a normal year, a guardsman does about 40 days of service.
But since 9-11, no year has been a “normal year.” Guardsmen from across the nation have deployed, again and again. They have secured military bases stateside. They have served abroad. Today, guardsmen and reservists comprise a significant proportion of troops in Iraq.
Allan Wall before reporting for duty
National Guard soldiers are, on average, older than regular Army soldiers. They have civilian jobs, which are protected by law. A guardsman’s employer is prohibited from firing him if he is deployed (though it does happen sometimes.) Some guardsmen are self-employed. If you have your own business, deployment is tough.
Guardsmen have families. So do regular Army soldiers. The difference is, the families of regular Army soldiers live on or near a military base. They are already involved in military life and know how to access the family military support they are entitled to. Guardsmen and their families, though, are dispersed throughout communities across the nation. Some travel a long way to drill. For a unit to keep track of and provide assistance to families is a little more complicated.
A guardsman is both a civilian and a soldier. He has a his foot in each world. This takes some adjustment, mentally and socially. When he is deployed, he has to leave behind his civilian life and work. He may have to submit himself to sergeants and officers who are quite unlike the people he works with in civilian life. Sometimes a guardsman may be subordinate to the same person he outranks in civilian life.
Since National Guard units are community-based, some guardsmen who drill at a particular unit may be long-time friends, acquaintances or even professional colleagues in civilian life. But in the Army National Guard, they must adhere to Army standards, lest their friendship transform their leadership structure into a “good old boys” network.”
Since National Guard units have much less training time than regular Army units, the challenge is to make effective use of the time available. When a unit is deployed, it is necessary to do a lot of training to brush-up on the many military tasks that soldiers must peform.
These are the challenges a National Guard unit faces. They face them daily, in the continental United States, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Balkans. Your fellow citizens in the National Guard are performing their mission. They are doing their job. They are serving when called. Most come home when their tour is ended. Some come home in a body bag. Either way, they accomplish the mission. That’s what it means to call up the National Guard.
When our National Guard unit was called up, we didn’t go directly to Iraq. We went through a 5-month preparation period. First, there was the initial call-up. Units were re-organized, and we got used to working with different combinations of people.
Some guardsmen were dropped from the mission due to medical problems. They were then sent back to civilian life. A member of my platoon was released due to a vertebral problem, another for a hearing problem. Some guardsmen were placed on medical hold – that means the soldier is held back from deployment to Iraq. Depending on his condition, he may or may not be deployed later.
One soldier in my platoon was put on med hold for a hearing problem. He never made it to Iraq. It was a big disappointment, because he really wanted to go. He was willing to do anything in Iraq. But, to no avail – he wasn’t allowed to go. Another soldier in my platoon injured his knee during training. He was put on med hold, and stayed behind when our unit shipped out to Iraq. But eventually his knee improved, so he joined us later in Iraq.
And yet another soldier in my company had only been in the military since 2001. This individual had friends who died in the 9-11 attacks. Afterward, he felt strongly motivated to join the military, and enlisted in the National Guard. When called up to go to Iraq, he really wanted to go. But because of his medical condition, he was held back at Fort XYX, to his extreme disappointment.
During our months of pre-Iraq training at Fort XYZ and Fort ABC, civilian guardsmen-turned-soldiers had to not only deal with training, but with family situations back home. Besides missing their families, managing finances, and taking care of business as well as possible back home, there were major situations to deal with.
One soldier’s wife was murdered while he was at Fort XYZ. Another learned that his brother’s hands had been cut off in a farming accident, which was quite upsetting. Another guardsman in my unit had to go home early from Fort ABC to be with his terminally ill mother, who passed away. There was a guardsman whose wife had a baby at the end of leave, before we returned to Fort XYZ. And another guardsman went home early from Fort ABC to give his only daughter away at her wedding. He really wanted to do this before he went to Iraq. Wondering about his own mortality, he was thinking: “Maybe I won’t come back from Iraq.”
Speaking of marriages, while we were still at Fort XYZ, some soldiers actually went home and got married themselves. Getting married carries certain financial benefits for military personnel. However, because of the time frame, the wedding ceremonies of these soldiers weren’t too elaborate. Another soldier was dissuaded from getting married during deployment. His fiancee’s father had promised that if they would wait to get married after deployment, he would pay for it and have it done right.
To summarize, we were called up, reported to our armories, then a training camp, then Fort XYZ, where we trained for several months. After a short stint at Fort ABC, we returned to Fort XYZ, left for Christmas leave, came back to Fort XYZ, then flew to the Middle East to begin our mission.
We initially reported for duty in mid-August 2004, and were re-organized into a brigade combat team of 3,000 soldiers, training for Iraq. Our training and preparation period lasted almost 5 months. We trained at Fort XYZ and in December at Fort ABC, where we participated in war games that simulated scenarios we might encounter in Iraq.
Packing began in November. To fly out to the Middle East, each soldier was allowed three duffel bags and a carry-on. One of the duffel bags was sent in November, the rest we took with us upon departure in January 2005. Packing these duffel bags is a real challenge. You cram and cram, and push down on the bag, but you reach a point where you can’t defy the laws of physics, so there are items that can’t be included.
As for equipment and vehicles belonging to the unit, those were placed on trains, transported to a coastal seaport and loaded on ships for passage to the Middle East. Our equipment departed by sea long before we departed. It was quite impressive to see all those railroad cars being loaded up with military vehicles. But our brigade’s operation, large as it was, is only a part of the whole. There is an enormous quantity of machinery, vehicles and equipment being ferried across the ocean, back and forth, on a regular basis.
Allan Wall watching equipment being loaded onto rail cars
Conducting a military operation on the other side of the world is not easy, and it’s not cheap. It’s not simply a matter of a few soldiers grabbing their rifles and heading off to war. It requires a vast infrastructure to support it. Even being a small part of it all is really something to remember.
Separation from family is the hardest part of deployment for many soldiers. I know I really miss my wife and children. I departed from Mexico on Dec. 28. My Christmas leave had been great, but oh-so short. I awoke on the day of my departure, and the four of us (myself, Lilia and our two boys) traveled in our car to the airport. It was an early flight, and after leaving my family, I had to go through the airport’s security measures. From that area, I could still look back and see Lilia and the boys.
Allan Wall during his last visit with his family
After I passed through this section, I turned and saw them for the last time, and moved on, out of their sight, upstairs to await my flight. I returned to Fort XYZ. Many months later, I still remember that farewell at the airport since it was the last time I saw my family. The Bard was right when he wrote, “Parting is such sweet sorrow …”
When we returned to Fort XYZ after Christmas leave, there was something different about us. Something about our appearance. Our uniforms. Throughout our training, we had worn the familiar green woodland camouflage uniform we had been wearing all those years in the National Guard. But as per instructions, when we came back from Christmas leave, these green woodland uniforms were left at home. We didn’t need them now. Instead of the green woodland uniforms we had doffed, we had donned the desert-colored uniform, the DCU. Even the boots are different, they are desert-colored, not black. This uniform change was significant. It was a sign, that we were soon to go to Iraq.
At the beginning of the new year, we began the “lockdown” phase, in which we awaited our flight to the Middle East – the exact date of which was uncertain – and were not allowed to leave Fort XYZ, even after duty hours. Families weren’t supposed to visit (though some did). And no alcohol was permitted. Somehow that rule was waived several nights.
Our activities included more packing, some details (miscellaneous work projects) and more training on Army tasks. In our spare time, after duty hours, many watched movies on DVDs, utilizing their laptops or DVD players. Some also competed in some high-stakes poker matches.
Soldiers and equipment were flying our of a Fort XYZ airfield. Each day more would leave. Unit morale seemed high. But we still didn’t know what our mission in Iraq was to be, and where we were to be stationed in that country. That was still “up in the air,” as we waited to take to the air and fly to the Middle East.