Since 9/11, more than 43,000 Alabama service members have deployed — most of them in and around Iraq and Afghanistan — and more are getting ready to go.
As of March 31, according to Defense Department figures based on legal residences and home addresses, 24,669 active duty service members and 18,775 Reservists or National Guard members with Alabama addresses have seen deployments, for a grand total of 43,444.
That total amounts to less than 1 percent of the state’s population, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2013 as more than 4.8 million. It also does not reflect the large number of service members who have deployed more than once.
DOD’s most recent Alabama deployment figure of 43,000-plus already is higher because of the recent arrival in Afghanistan of approximately 330 airmen with the Alabama Air National Guard’s 187th Fighter Wing and about 70 members of the Alabama Army National Guard’s Company B of the 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment. In Afghanistan, these Guard members joined approximately 165 soldiers with the state Army Guard’s 1151st Engineer Company and about 65 with the 1103rd Combat Support Sustainment Battalion.
Members of Company B, based in Birmingham, recently flew to Afghanistan after about two months of training at Fort Hood, Texas. The company’s mission will be like the two previous missions its soldiers have had before in Afghanistan: moving troops and supplies and equipment in twin-rotor Chinook helicopters for combat operations. But this upcoming mission will have a new wrinkle: getting troops, supplies and equipment out of bases that are closing as part of the drawdown of U.S. forces.
Shortly before B Company left Fort Hood, the unit’s commander, Capt. Shep Morris, said his soldiers had “done a lot of hard training.”
“Everybody’s focused, prepared and ready to move down range and do our job,” said Morris, who lives in Macon County.
At present, B Company soldiers are working alongside their counterparts in the unit they are replacing, Company B, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment with the Hawaii National Guard. The process, called Relief in Place, is likened to one runner passing the baton to another in a track meet. In this case, the Alabamians will continue doing what the Hawaiians were doing, but their mission can be modified in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, about 160 soldiers in two companies with the state Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion are in their final weeks of training for a mission in Afghanistan. Among those training are soldiers who first deployed with the full battalion – between 500-600 soldiers — to Iraq in 2003-04, then were part of a full battalion deployment to Afghanistan in 2009-2010. The battalion’s mission in Iraq included repairing orphanages and schools and roads, building up and protecting U.S. installations, and even tearing down the house in which Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a firefight with U.S. troops in the city of Mosul.
In Afghanistan in 2009-10, the 877th’s mission included building up and winterizing bases occupied by U.S. troops and their coalition partners. The upcoming mission, in which several hundred Guard soldiers from other states will participate, will involve tearing down bases.
One of those deploying with the 877th for the third time is Maj. Alexander Shaw of Tuscaloosa, a father of three, who is now the battalion’s executive officer.
“The first deployment was a total shock because…nobody in the National Guard expects to have to go to war,” Shaw said earlier this year. “We’re always taught, from basic training forward, that, you know, ‘This is what we’re training you for — to go to war,’ but I can actually say when we got that first call, it was a shock.
“When we got the second call, we pretty much expected it,’ Shaw added. “The third call was a shock because we’re thinking, ‘Well, we’ve been twice, surely they can find somebody else to go.’”
Nonetheless, Shaw said, the fact that the two 877th companies have a number of previously deployed veterans is making preparation easier for the upcoming mission.
“We know what to expect,” he said. “We’ve done it twice, kind of got a feel for what you’re going to experience when you’re over there, and I think having that experience of doing it before will help kind of calm the storm…for lack of a better term, as far as the soldiers who haven’t ever deployed before.”
Capt. Drew Hill of Opelika, another two-deployment 877th veteran who is now a platoon leader, said one of the biggest adjustments for soldiers in Afghanistan is the altitude. For example, Kabul, the Afghan capital, is about 6,000 feet above sea level, about 10 times that of Birmingham.
“It’s going to take you about a month to get used to the change in altitude,” said Hill, who was a specialist with the 877th in northern Iraq in 2003-04. “I consider myself to be in pretty good shape. I get there, and I’m sucking wind.”
Overall, according to the Pentagon, more than 2.6 million service members – 1,891,672 on active duty and 736,333 from the Guard and reserves – have been deployed since 9/11. Alabama has contributed less than 2 percent of that total. Texas and Florida, populous states that are home to major military installations, have contributed the largest portions. A total of 324,052 service members with Texas addresses have deployed since 9/11, or about 12 percent of the national figure. A total of 252,896 residents have deployed from Florida, or nearly 10 percent of the U.S. total.