Texas national guard preps for Iraq war exit

July 3, 2010 5:03:26 PM PDT
Inside a vast network of sand-colored tents erected on a Camp Mabry parking lot, local National Guard soldiers huddle in front of computer screens and tangles of telecommunications equipment. A clock at the entrance of the futuristic training complex marks the countdown to deployment, now less than 100 days away. As the war in Iraq winds down and troops make their final exit from the country, an Austin-based Texas Army National Guard unit is preparing to play a vital role: overseeing the drawdown of forces in southern Iraq.

The 36th Infantry Division, which includes a large number of central Texas guard members, will take command of up to 12,000 U.S. troops, a rare instance in which a National Guard unit has commanded active duty forces during combat.

It marks the first time the division's headquarters has deployed to a combat theater since World War II, and for many of its soldiers, the deployment is a chance to witness a momentous transition.

"It's going to be a historic tour for this division," said Maj. Gen. Eddy M. Spurgin, who commands the division and in his civilian job works as a district conservationist for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Service in Big Spring. "Just getting all that equipment out of Iraq will be huge."

About 800 soldiers from the division's headquarters, more than half of whom hail from Austin and other central Texas cities, will deploy to Basra, a port city of nearly 4 million people that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the 2003 invasion. After a summer of training at Camp Mabry and Bastrop's Camp Swift, the soldiers will begin their 10-month deployment on Sept. 26.

Spurgin said the division headquarters, which was chosen for the mission by the Army, has earned a good reputation mobilizing Texas National Guard brigades and units into both Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 20,000 Texas National Guard soldiers, doing everything from providing security to convoys to teaching Afghan farmers new planting methods, have deployed to both countries.

"We do have a good track record," Spurgin said.

The upcoming deployment will have a distinctly Texan feel, with the 36th Infantry Division commanding two Fort Hood brigades.

"We're going during a very unique period," said Maj. Monica Gupta, who will be part of a team tracking battlefield movements once the division arrives in Iraq. "It's almost uncharted territory. All that blood, sweat and tears is coming down to a culminating event."

The Texas soldiers will coordinate the drawdown in the southern third of Iraq, commanding U.S. Division South. Two other command divisions, in the Baghdad area and in northern Iraq, will coordinate the troop withdrawal in those areas of the country.

U.S. troops, which numbered 170,000 during the 2007 surge and 124,000 as recently as October, are scheduled to be reduced to 50,000 by Sept. 1. And President Barack Obama has ordered the last of the U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

The drawdown has already begun with military planners are taking on one of the world's most massive logistical challenges: moving about 1.5 million pieces of equipment out of the country. Much of the military equipment is headed to the battlefields of Afghanistan. The rest is being brought back to the United States or handed over to Iraqi security forces.

Much of it will pass through the 36th Infantry Division's territory in southern Iraq on its way to staging areas in Kuwait.

The logistical operations will play out against a dramatic political background, as Iraqi officials try to stitch together a functional national government to assume control of the war-torn nation. A deeply divided Iraqi parliament recently met for the first time, three months after a bitter election that included court challenges and recounts.

Local national guard officials are hoping the contentious political situation won't result in increased bloodshed.

"Fortunately, right now in the south the violence is relatively low compared with the rest of the country," Spurgin said, adding that the south is majority Shiite and hasn't seen the kind of sectarian violence that Baghdad and northern Iraq have. Still, officials are preparing for any possible outbreaks. "Our soldiers will have to be well-trained," Spurgin said.

In addition to battlefield training in weapons and navigation, the preparation includes cultural and linguistic education. The division will advise and assist Iraqi army and police forces as well as Iraqi border guards along the potentially troublesome Iraq-Iran border.

But the centerpiece of the training effort is a mock headquarters the division has built at Camp Mabry. The tents have a subterranean feel -- one soldier joked that it looked like Echo Base in the movie "The Empire Strikes Back" -- and feature a warren of control rooms.

Soldiers are learning there how to use technology to coordinate and synchronize the movements of thousands of troops and convoys over nine Iraqi provinces.

On a recent June morning, Staff Sgt. Michael Steadman, 28, was training on a topographic mapping analysis system, which in Basra will feature a live feed showing the locations of trucks and soldiers. Steadman, an Austin native and graduate of Connally High School in Pflugerville, said he's excited about the pending deployment but added that the separation from his first son, who was born just three months ago, will be tough.

"I'm going to miss him," Steadman said. "Just deploying and everything, I've never had to deal with that, so it's a lot stacking up."

Unlike previous Texas National Guard deployments, many 36th Infantry Division soldiers had nearly two years of warning, which they said made preparing to leave easier. That's a far cry from earlier in the decade, when National Guard soldiers got just months of notice of an upcoming deployment.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than 20,000 Texas Army National Guard soldiers have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and 4,200 are scheduled to deploy in 2010 alone. Twelve Texas guardsmen have been killed in action.

Many of the 36th Infantry Division soldiers said they were keenly aware of the historic nature of the deployment.

The division's headquarters was formed during World War I and was deployed to the war zone during World War II, when Texas soldiers spearheaded the Italian campaign. After being reorganized into the 49th Armored Division during the Cold War years, the division was reconstituted in 2004 and has led peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia.

"It's a new Texas history," said Sgt. 1st Class Loren Pogue, 42, who will be making his fifth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. "I hope it stays nice and calm. I just want to bring our soldiers back home and do the drawdown with no issues."


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