On a recent warm, sunny morning, while most Alabamians were safe and in a climate-controlled locale, about 100 Alabama National Guard soldiers were trying to seize a community in which the climate was less than friendly.
With 40 additional pounds of gear, including their protective vests, and blank cartridges in their weapons, the Guard soldiers, most of them members of the 167th Infantry Battalion’s Delta Company, were in a make-believe Afghanistan village called Kunday.
The village was in a remote part of Pelham Range on some old Fort McClellan acreage now part of the Army National Guard Training Center.
If someone needed a reminder that the nation is still at war and that Alabamians are still being called upon to help fight it, Kunday was the place to be.
Not much to look at, the village was a collection of buildings fashioned from plywood and corrugated steel shipping containers that flanked both sides of a main street that ran a couple of blocks before ending in a roundabout enclosed by concrete barriers. Behind the roundabout was a small cluster of additional structures, one identified as a school.
In recent weeks, Kunday has been the scene of training exercises for Guard soldiers like those in the 167th, about 580 of whom will be deploying to Afghanistan later this summer. While the mission of the 167th will be to provide security for convoys and to staff other security details needed around the country, the morning exercise was to help prepare them for a challenge that may unexpectedly arise and put their lethal skills to the test.
The exercise lasted less than an hour and was accompanied by the smoke, noise and confusion that can characterize a fast-developing firefight. Deafening explosions from devices called artillery simulators sent discarded tires spinning into the air. Smoke grenades, a signaling device used by Taliban fighters, put forth smelly plumes of purple, yellow and green. Amid the booms, and thumps and rat-tat of small arms fire, the recorded nasal chants of a muezzin played continuously.
Groups of Guard soldiers had different roles to play in managing the chaos. Some of them were emptying belts of blanks from .50-caliber machine guns in the turrets of humvees. Others were running in and out of buildings, exchanging rifle fire with robed insurgents, taking some of them prisoner and physically subduing one wearing a padded, black, ninja-like assault suit. Another group, called an extraction team, was rescuing the village mayor from the clutches of hostiles after another squad of soldiers had hung a piece of reddish-orange florescent plastic outside a doorway to show them where the official was being held.
Inside the roundabout, the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, several trainers and senior battalion officers watched, plugs in their ears. “This company is really experienced on this type of extraction and clearing the village,” Maj. Tim Maples, who oversees the training, said afterward. “I think they had good command and control, awareness of the situation. Everybody followed the unit mission … had the intel, followed it to the letter, did a good job.”
A few weeks later, at an Alabama Guard site within the confines of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Delta Company soldiers would join some of their 167th counterparts in a convoy protection exercise. And this time, live fire, not blanks, was part of the training.
Alabamians were involved in the start of the wars that started after 9/11, and it’s likely they will be on hand when U.S. troops are slated to pull out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs lists 131 persons with Alabama ties who have died in the war on terror, most of them in and around Iraq. A statistical website, icasualties.org, lists 550 Alabamians as wounded in the Iraq conflict and 181 wounded in the Afghan war.
The ranks of Alabama’s dead include four service members who were killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, and Mike Spann, a CIA agent from the north Alabama town of Winfield, who was killed more than two months later in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Overall, about 2.4 million American service members have been deployed overseas since 9/11, 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.
About 180,000 service members are now deployed, and about 2,700 list Alabama as their legal address. That figure now includes about 700 Alabama Army and Air Guard members serving in Afghanistan or Kuwait. Later this summer, when the Talladega-based 167th heads to Afghanistan, and about 150 members of the 152nd Military Police Company, based in Hartselle, head to the Persian Gulf country of Qatar for a security mission, the Alabama Guard’s overseas presence will more than double.
It’s not clear whether some other Alabama Guard units will be heading to the war zones in the next two years, but Smith says he expects the Pentagon to call upon Guard members for extended deployments for some time to come, not only because of their skills but because it is cheaper to send them. Thus far, the Guard has seen more than 17,000 individual deployments since 9/11. Because that figure refers to deployments and not individual soldiers and airmen, it means that many Guard soldiers and airmen have been to Iraq or Afghanistan more than once. At the Pelham Range exercise, Guard officers said about 40 percent of the 167th Infantry Battalion’s soldiers are Iraq or Afghan vets.
The Alabama National Guard has more than 13,000 members, most of them serving as soldiers. In fact, the state’s Army Guard, with more than 11,000 soldiers, is the nation’s fifth largest. Since 9/11, its missions have included hunting Al Qaeda types in Afghanistan, training Afghan police and soldiers, building security structures at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, protecting supply convoys, repairing schools and roads, flying troops into battle zones, setting up water purification systems, running medical clinics to treat ill and slightly injured soldiers, and even tearing down the house in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul where Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, died in a firefight with U.S. forces.
“We anticipate remaining what’s called an operational force,” Smith said. “Before 9/11, we were a strategic reserve … In training dollars and equipment, they’d throw us a bone, and they never needed us. Well, 9/11 changed all that. Now we do everything they do – the active component – and many times we do it better than they do, but we do it for a fraction of the cost.
“All types of units are going to continue to be called, but not necessarily … going to Afghanistan,” Smith added. “But as we go along, I anticipate (that as) they need soldiers and airmen, they are going to call on the Air National and the Army National Guard to do those deployments. It’s the smart way to do it, and we want to do it.”
In general, Guard soldiers have 30 months between deployments, a period to allow them more time to adjust to family and peacetime life, and their job routine. But for some, the adjustments last a lot longer than 30 months, and they need more than their own inner resources to see it through. At the Birmingham VA Medical Center, the number of Iraq and Afghan vets who have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder since 9/11 is 18 percent of the total caseload of almost 13,500, but the percentage has been steadily growing. So also has the percentage of Guard soldiers who, upon returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan, have been referred to a health care provider or given an additional health assessment.
In an email, Capt. Andrew Richardson, an Alabama Guard spokesman, said that in fiscal 2011, the Alabama Army Guard “screened 890 post-deployment soldiers and referred 541 to a health care provider or further assessment. These referrals can be for any health issue, mental or physical, that is related to the Soldier’s deployment.” The figure represents a substantial rise over the referrals from earlier screenings, and Richardson said it was due to greater efforts by the Guard “to make soldiers aware of the programs available to assist soldiers and to get soldiers to seek care for any health issue the soldier believes is related to his or her deployment.”
Richardson’s comments reflect a lot of changes that have been made since the U.S. started sending troops to war after 9/11. Using lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been beefing up their efforts to address mental health issues with full-time service members and those who make up the Guard and Reserves. At the Birmingham VA Medical Center, for example, the number of specialists and other employees working in the mental health unit 10 years ago was a fraction of the approximately 120 working there today.
At the same time, troops, particularly in the Guard, are now deploying with better equipment. In 2004, the same year that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Tennessee Guard soldier that “you go to war with the Army you have,” members of the Alabama Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion were riding around northern Iraq In humvees that had canvas-topped roofs, open doorways and no additional armor. Such highly vulnerable equipment would be inconceivable today.
“Compared to where we were in 2002-2003, it’s night and day,” said Maples, who was in Afghanistan then with members of the Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group, which has its headquarters in Birmingham.
One thing that has not changed since 9/11 is the small number of Americans and Alabamians who have been deploying. The 40,000 or so Alabamians who have deployed since 9/11 make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population.
“The active Army, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve comprise about one third of one percent of the nation’s population, so we realize we’re a minority,” said Lt. Col. Larry Norred, commander of the 16 th. “Every society has a warrior class and we are that for the United States of America, along with the Marines, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Air Force, the other military branches. We’re very appreciative for the American public generally being supportive of us. We feel that every day.”
As Norred was speaking, many of his soldiers were feeling sweat and the heavy load they had carried from the morning exercise in Kunday. They joined ranks to hear encouraging words from Smith, and many hollered, “Hooah!” when he said it was time the 167th got back in the war. If the comments some of them made afterward were any indication, they were ready to go.
Cpl. Brian Adam Caine of Sylacauga, 24, who is studying electrical engineering at Auburn, said he expected a deployment when he joined the Guard several years ago, and he will be leading a small team of soldiers in Afghanistan. Fear is something every soldier will feel in varying degrees once they start their mission, Caine said, but “without some level of fear, you can’t have any courage.
While Caine will be starting his first deployment later this year, battalion Command Sgt. Major John Black will be on his second. The 46-year-old Black was first sergeant with the 167th’s Charlie Company from 2007-08, when that unit did convoy protection in Iraq. He also did a security deployment for about a year at Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal in the aftermath of 9/11.
Black’s extended absences have taken him away from his two daughters, Haleigh, 19, and Elizabeth, 12, but he has been in the Guard for 29 years and he says his girls have become accustomed to him being away, for short and long periods.
“They’ve never known me not to be in the military,” the Cullman County resident said.
At the same time, Black said his deployments have taught him not to take anything for granted, “to take full advantage of every opportunity I have (to do) something lasting for my children, something meaningful.”
That’s a lesson many battalion soldiers half Black’s age, with children far younger than his own, are beginning to learn.”
Tom Gordon is a veteran Birmingham journalist who worked 28 years as a reporter and editor with the Birmingham News. Send your feedback to email@example.com.