About 600 Alabama Army National Guard soldiers were slated to arrive in Afghanistan this week to start a mission that includes protecting convoys and performing security missions throughout the country.
The soldiers are members of the 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment, a unit headquartered in Talladega and with other companies in north central and east Alabama. About 40 percent of the battalion’s soldiers, including many of its key leaders, have had previous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of them have done separate deployments in Iraq with the battalion’s Alpha or Charlie companies. Many of the battalion soldiers are in their early to mid-20s.
The infantry battalion, one of the largest Alabama Guard units to deploy since the 9/11 terror attacks, did a final round of pre-deployment training at Camp Shelby, Miss. On August 5, friends and family members, as well as Gov. Robert Bentley and Alabama Guard Adjutant Gen. Perry Smith, were on hand at Shelby for a final send-off ceremony before the soldiers’ departure. The battalion was slated to fly out over the following weekend.
Battalion Command Sgt. Major John Black was among those who spoke at the send-off ceremony and targeted a portion of his remarks at the friends and relatives of his soldiers.
“Heroes past, present and future stand before you today, but our hearts will remain with you, our heroes at home,” a portion of Black’s speech states. “Let it be known that the same sun that stands above us today and the same moon and stars that will rise above us this evening will also pass overhead in Afghanistan. As they pass, blow a kiss to your soldier and be ready for one to come to you with each passing day.”
In Afghanistan, the battalion will be known as Task Force Centurion, and its commander will be an officer who flew helicopter missions in the country in 2004-2005. Lt. Col. J.R. Bass, who lives in north Shelby County, assumed command of the battalion during its time at Shelby. He replaced Lt. Col. Larry Norred, who had some matters to attend to at home. The Guard unit that Bass commanded in Afghanistan ferried millions of pounds of supplies and thousands of soldiers around the country in CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
At Shelby, the battalion did multi-faceted training, including drills in which their vehicles, usually humvees, came under attack and the crews in those vehicles had to respond. In Afghanistan, the soldiers expect to be operating heavier, less-easy-to-maneuver MRAPs, or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that are manufactured in several different models. Spc. Amy Milliron of Leeds, one of the battalion’s vehicle drivers, said she and the other drivers have had MRAP training.
Driving an MRAP “is much more difficult,” said Milliron’s company commander, Capt. Sherrad Hayes of Vestavia Hills. “I’ve never done it before but I’ve sat in the driver’s seat in most of them and…it’s very tall, and very heavy.”
Army Col. Dale Kuehl, a graduate of West Point and Huntsville’s Grissom High School, was one of the commanders who oversaw the battalion’s training at Shelby, and he said the unit’s soldiers “were well prepared” for it.
“While here they focused on convoy operations, counter-IED (improvised explosive devices), and gunnery,” Kuehl said in an e-mail the day before the Aug. 5 departure ceremony. “The unit finished its final training event today, which was a four-day training exercise designed as a capstone training event prior to their deployment where we put them in situations which replicate the environment and problems they will face in Afghanistan.
“I am confident they are well prepared for their mission,” Kuehl said.
“They’re ready,” Black said shortly before the battalion’s departure. “My commanders and first sergeants trust those soldiers, and I trust them.”
The battalion’s deployment nearly doubles the number of Alabama Army and Air National Guard members now serving in the Middle East or Central Asia. That number will go up again in the near future when 150 soldiers with the Army Guard’s 152nd Military Police Company, based in Hartselle, are slated to head to the Persian Gulf country of Qatar.
In October, about 500 soldiers with the Guard’s north Alabama-based 115th Expeditionary Signal Battalion are scheduled to return home from Kuwait.
Overall, about 2.4 million American service members have been deployed overseas since the 9/11 attacks, most of them in and around Iraq and Afghanistan. Of that total, according to recent Pentagon records based on a service member’s legal residence, about 40,000 have been from Alabama, and more than a few of those Alabamians have seen multiple deployments.
Tom Gordon, a former reporter and editor at the Birmingham News, covered Alabamians in the military after 9/11. In the summer of 2003, he spent six weeks in northern Iraq with the Alabama National Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion. At home, he has written about the war on terror’s impact on Alabama families while a loved one is deployed or after a loved one is lost, and about the struggles of some Iraq and Afghan war vets to adjust to everyday life when they return home. Gordon is now a Weld contributor. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org