Two Alabama Army National Guard units are settling into their new assignments in Kuwait and Cuba, while an advance team from another unit returned home a few weeks ago, preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
After training for about six weeks in the bleak, rocky, windswept north end of Fort Hood, Texas, about 250 soldiers with the Birmingham-based 135th Expeditionary Sustainment Command flew to Kuwait over the weekend. For most of the year, the unit will be headquartered at Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City, where it will plan for the movement of parts, supplies, food, mail and troops around the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries in the vast area of responsibility, or AOR, of the U.S. Army’s Central Command. While Afghanistan is part of the AOR and a separate regular Army unit handles troop support in that country, the 135th figures to be helping plan for the withdrawal of the massive numbers of troops and equipment that is already under way there.
“Even though we’re not in Afghanistan, that’s going to touch us,” said unit Command Sgt. Maj. Clark Kinder of Oneonta in an interview after 135th soldiers had completed a rigorous 10-day training exercise in some guarded buildings near their barracks.
The Fort Hood training followed another round of preparation that the 135th did last year at the Army National Guard Training Center at the old Fort McClellan reservation near Anniston.
“At Fort McClellan, we got a bachelor’s degree,” said the 135th commander, Brig. Gen. Don Tatum, shortly before the unit’s departure for Kuwait. “At Fort Hood, we’re getting a graduate level degree.”
According to talking points furnished by the 135th, Tatum is only the second National Guard general officer to deploy with his command since World War II. The first was then-Brig. Gen. Reynold Hoover, who commanded the 135th during its planning and troop support mission in Afghanistan from December 2009 to October 2010.
Because of ongoing political instability and terrorism in the region for which the 135th will be responsible – not to mention the ever bloodier civil war in Syria – its staff will be planning for situations real, routine and potential. Just about the time the Guard unit was heading to Kuwait, the U.S. announced it would furnish non-lethal aid to rebels fighting to topple the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
“You know, if you look at what’s going on in Syria right now, they’ve got a lot of refugees crossing into…Jordan, Turkey and Iraq and so there’s a possibility we could get involved in humanitarian missions there,” Kinder said.
While in Kuwait, the ranks of the 135th will be bolstered by 1,500 to 2,000 additional soldiers in Guard, Reserve or active duty units, who will help carry out its mission. Col. Thomas Vickers, chief of staff of the 135th , said the unit will also “manage and supervise” contractors operating in the region, and that he and a board will review contracts that come up for renewal and adjust them if necessary to save money.
“It’s huge,” said Vickers, who is the principal at Phenix City’s Central High School. “And you just want to make sure that everybody’s spending the American taxpayer’s money efficiently. And if we can do it better, then we want to save that money if we can.”
The 135th is replacing the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, an Army Reserve unit from Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, about 170 soldiers with the Guard’s 128th Military Police Company are in place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, having arrived there recently after completing several weeks of training at Fort Bliss, Texas. The Athens-based unit is “to provide security forces support to units based there,” according to an Alabama Guard news release. An island prison at Guantanamo has held hundreds of suspected terrorists since the 9/11 attacks.
More than 200 soldiers with the Guard’s 226th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB) will be arriving in Afghanistan about the time that about 600 soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment, another Guard unit, will be back home. Since last August, the Talladega-headquartered 1st Battalion has been running security missions throughout much of Afghanistan, escorting convoys and protecting military officials and contractors during visits to villages and meetings with Afghan officials.
In a recent email, Maj. Michael Tomberlin of McCalla, a Birmingham News reporter who also is the battalion public affairs officer, said the unit expects to arrive back in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in mid-May, returning to Alabama near the end of the month.
The 226th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade’s mission will be somewhat similar to what the 135th willbe doing in Kuwait. Its commander, Col. Sylvester Cannon, deployed with the 135th to Afghanistan in 2009-2010. But on this deployment, the Mobile-based 226th will be confined to U.S. military base camps in and immediately around the Afghan capital of Kabul.
“We’re going to manage all of the bases in Kabul Province – and there’s a lot – and all the forces that stay there,” said the 226th’s command sergeant major, Kevin Griffin of Irondale.
In short, the 226th will oversee food, clothing, shelter and supply for troops in those installations. In addition, the 226th will oversee two National Guard military police companies that will mentor Afghan police units in the area.
Griffin said he was part of a team with the Mobile-based unit that spent two weeks in the Kabul area earlier this year to get a feel for their operating environment and meet with their counterparts in the unit the 226th will be replacing, the Texas National Guard’s 136th MEB.
“It was very productive,” Griffin said. “[We] really got a lot of things fixed and ironed out prior to the main body [of the 226th] getting there.”
Currently, more than 1,000 Alabama Army National Guard soldiers are deployed overseas, most of them in the Middle East or Central Asia. According to recent Pentagon records based on a service member’s legal residence, more than 41,000 Alabamians have been deployed since the 9/11 attacks, many more than once.