The Alabama Army National Guard says that it has sent soldiers on more than 22,000 overseas deployments since 9/11, most of them to Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries. At various times in years past there were well over 1,000 Alabama Guard soldiers overseas with hundreds more back home getting ready to go.
In recent years those numbers diminished greatly with the U.S. phase-down of forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in May, fewer than 100 state Guard troops, most of them with the Birmingham-based 20th Special Forces Group, were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with the still resilient Taliban in Afghanistan and the lethal and growing presence in Iraq, Syria and other countries of the group calling itself The Islamic State the Alabama Guard numbers are once again going up.
Evidence of that was evident on Saturday in north Alabama’s Marshall County, in the packed Arab High School Auditorium. There about 115 members of the Guard’s Alpha Company, 136th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, were saluted, cheered, photographed, hugged, prayed over and showered with well wishes. The following day they boarded a flight to Fort Hood, Texas for some final weeks of training before they head off for a nine-month tour of duty that is slated to take them to multiple sites and countries in the Middle East.
About half of the Alpha Company soldiers have been there before, most of them having deployed to Iraq in 2004-05 with the now-disbanded 279th Signal Battalion.
The Alpha Company deployment will boost the Army Guard’s currently deployed ranks to 415, according to Maj. Andrew Richardson, a Guard spokesman. The 217th Military Police Company from Prattville already is in Kuwait, and the 1200th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion from Ashland will soon be heading to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
In remarks at Saturday’s send-off ceremony, Capt. David Bacon, commander of the Arab-based Alpha Company, described his “citizen soldiers” as “a different breed than what you find in the active duty side of the Army.
“There’s a different kind of sacrifice these soldiers volunteered to take when they’re called to duty,” Bacon said. “They’re going to take that sacrifice of time, effort and stress one step further, starting tomorrow.”
Except for one of its companies, the full 136th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, headquartered in Texas, will deploy to the Middle East and provide communications support to operations known as Spartan Shield, Freedom’s Sentinel and Inherent Resolve. Together, those operations are taking place in a number of countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and they include efforts to counter the Islamic State. Bacon said that means soldiers from Alpha Company could be serving not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but several more. According to the state Guard, those countries include Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan.
Bacon and Lt. Col. Jason Griffin, commander of the Guard’s 115th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, said Alpha Company soldiers will use sophisticated satellite and computer systems to primarily provide vital communications links for high-level U.S. and allied commanders, whether they be overseeing combat operations or planning training exercises.
“This is serious, big-boy communications,” Griffin said.
“We can do both secret and non-secret and long-haul transmissions nearly over the entire world with our satellite systems,” Bacon said.
“We’ve been ready for this,” said the 36-year-old Bacon, a Guard veteran of almost 10 years who will be going on his first deployment. “We’ve known about this for almost a year and a half so, you know, we’re ready to do our job.”
While Alpha Company puts its troops through their final pre-deployment paces at Fort Hood, several hundred Guard soldiers in four other units are preparing for deployments in the next year, Richardson said. The units consist of a 15-member logistical training team heading to Afghanistan; the 129th Medical Company, from Centreville, also heading to Afghanistan; the 214th MP Company of Alexander City, heading to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the 1670th Transportation Company from Brantley, heading to Kuwait.
And while its overseas-bound numbers are growing, the Alabama Army Guard’s overall strength has dropped in keeping with downsizing of the military nationwide. Late last week, the Guard’s actual troop strength was 10,565, about half of what it was at the time of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Richardson said the state Army Guard has an authorized strength of almost 10,877, but that authorized figure is slated to drop to 10,400 in fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1.