Three years ago, the Alabama National Guard’s 135th Expeditionary Sustainment Command was heading to Afghanistan with a big job — overseeing the movement of parts, supplies, food, mail and troops throughout the country.
The Birmingham-based unit is about to head overseas again with the same logistical assignment, but in a much bigger neighborhood — one that includes many of the world’s hotspots. The 135th’s 250 or so soldiers could find themselves supporting U.S. military missions in particularly dangerous places.
“It’s a complex and challenging environment right now,” said Brigadier General Don Tatum, the 135th commander. “The possibilities are endless.”
That complex and challenging environment consists of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries in the area of responsibility, or AOR, of the U.S. Army’s Central Command. Those countries not only include Kuwait, where the 135th will be based for about nine months, but also Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan.
These countries are continually on the U.S. radar screen because they have been beset by one or more problems that include internal strife, political unrest, terrorism or humanitarian crises. Syria and Iran also are considered state sponsors of terrorism. Afghanistan, also in the Centcom AOR where a regular Army unit handles troop support, will get the added efforts of the 135th.
The 135th will be based in Camp Arifjan, a sprawling, dusty facility south of Kuwait City where thousands of U.S. and allied troops trained for the Iraq War. Many of those same troops returned there from Iraq before heading home. While the U.S. is no longer fighting in neighboring Iraq, Arifjan has continued to be a training and staging ground for U.S. military units, including ones heading to and from Afghanistan. Those troops need supplies, mail, food, medical care, housing, transportation and other necessities, and that’s where the 135th will come in, along with some supporting units that will be under its command in Kuwait.
If the surrounding region does not have a crisis requiring some kind of U.S.response, the 135th’s tour of duty could be pretty uneventful.
“I hope it’s boring,” said Lieutenant Colonel Larry Vaughn of Hoover, the 135th’s assistant chief of staff for training, operations and planning. “I hope nothing happens and we just support the U.S. military (units) that come through with whatever they need, and we come back home.”
But given the potential for the region’s small fires to flare into full-fledged conflagrations – the civil war in Syria immediately comes to mind – the 135th commanders are not carrying rose-colored glasses in their rucksacks. Vaughn discussed a scenario that could require the 135th’s specialized logistical skills and those of its supporting units. He could have been speaking of the impact of the Syrian crisis on some neighboring countries.
“Say there’s a need for refugee support in an area that’s having refugees pour across the border and it’s one…of our friends,” Vaughn said. “And Centcom…asks their Army element, their land component commander, ‘Hey I could use some logistics support on how we provide food service for this number of refugees in this area.’ And the Army component…turns to their logistics planners and coordinators and goes, ‘Okay, y’all come up with a plan on how we can support this in this area for this number of people, for food.’ And we would just help ‘em write the plan…develop the plan.”
Vaughn said the 135th has to be prepared for many unforeseen scenarios “because we can’t identify one specific thing that’s going to happen.” That’s why the 135th and its subordinate units will not only have big-picture planners but also commodity managers who know how to get potable water to locations that don’t have it, soldiers familiar with stacking and storing ammunition, and others who know how to move construction materials and dispense fuel where needed.
Sustainment, Tatum said, “is any and everything…It’s just a myriad of different things that you could be tasked with doing.”
Colonel Thomas Vickers, the unit’s chief of staff, put it another way: “There are a thousand ‘what ifs.’”
Although most of the 135th soldiers are from Alabama, the unit also has members from Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and Georgia. Most of them have had at least one previous deployment in and around Iraq or Afghanistan. Tatum, who had a post-9/11 deployment that took him to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said a large number of the 135th’s soldiers were part of the unit’s December 2009-October 2010 deployment in Afghanistan.
Before deploying, the 135th will do some additional training at Fort Hood,Texas. It is scheduled to head to Hood following a January 12 send-off ceremony at Homewood High School. The unit was at Hood on November 5, 2009 when a gunman opened fire at troops who were in the huge installation’s Soldier Readiness Center. Major Nidal Hassan, a psychiatrist who has not yet come to trial, is charged with killing 13 people. The shooting rampage also wounded about 30 others, one of whom was 135th Major Randy Royer, who lives in Dale County in southeast Alabama.
Royer was shot twice, sustained a broken left leg and left arm, and might have lost one or both limbs had he not received prompt attention from caregivers who used a belt as a tourniquet on his arm, and a bra to stop the bleeding from his leg. In a recent interview, Royer said that the anniversary of the shooting is a troubling time for him, that he walks with a cane, and that his leg and arm still give him pain. He also said he expected to be medically discharged from the Guard early next year. He already has testified at a hearing to determine if Hassan should stand trial, and he said he expects to testify at that trial.
“I kinda (wonder) what’s going to happen out there, but at the same time I want to put it behind me so it’s a blessing in that matter,” Royer said. “It’s one more step closer to getting it out of my head.”
Hassan’s trial has been delayed several times. The presiding judge, who had ordered the removal of a beard which Hassan said he had grown to show his Muslim faith, was recently removed from the case.
Royer’s brother Dave said he feels certain that his brother and others wounded on November 5, 2009, are being victimized by the slow progress of the case. “I know he still suffers from PTSD,” Dave Royer said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind, because 90 percent of the time, you know, he’s the old Randy, he’s my brother. And then there’s that 10 percent (where) he’s out there somewhere.”
At present, the Alabama Army Guard has about 850 soldiers deployed, most of them in Afghanistan. About 140 are in Qatar, and approximately 10 are in Kuwait.