Utah combat vets on way back to Iraqi war zone
CAMP WILLIAMS - A company of National Guardsmen will arrive in Iraq this summer with a weapon that no unit of reservists from Utah has yet enjoyed: significant combat experience.
Five years after the invasion of Afghanistan and four years into the battle for Iraq, the U.S. Army has begun to recycle its reservists through the war zones. And while some see that as bad for morale or a sign that the military has been stretched too thin, combat commanders are prone to see the upside: They're going to war alongside soldiers who understand war.
"We have a pretty good number of soldiers that have previously been deployed in a combat zone," said John Martinez, the commanding officer of the 116th Construction Support Equipment Company, which will spend several months training in Mississippi before deploying to Iraq to provide convoy security. "You know we're going to be using that experience - it's a huge asset."
Martinez's company is about 200 soldiers strong. While the Guard has recently announced it will be recalling some reservists involuntarily for a second tour, officials said everyone in the 116th volunteered for this mission - including about 100 soldiers from the unit who have done a prior tour through Iraq or Afghanistan.
That's a ratio of combat vets to combat rookies that appears to be unmatched in Utah National Guard history. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, propelled the United States military into a frenzied cycle of deployments, the Utah Guard hadn't been called en masse since the Korean War, said Richard Roberts, a former Army officer who has written extensively on Utah National Guard history.
"I think there may have been some World War II veterans who went to Korea, and there were maybe some units that may have served in both conflicts, but not with a lot of the same combat-experience veterans," Roberts said.
Roberts noted that several dozen Utah Guardsmen volunteered for service in Vietnam. Those vets, and scores of others, wound up serving out long careers in the Guard.
But only a small number remained in service three decades later, as the U.S. began its most recent conflicts. Those vets were joined by some veterans of the 1991 war in Iraq - like former Marine Michael Dixon - who later returned to war as members of Utah Guard units. Dixon, who served his second war stint in Iraq with the 222nd Field Artillery in 2005 and 2006, is returning for a third tour with the 116th.
But in the early years of the nation's current conflicts, Guardsmen like Dixon were the exception. By and large, Guard commanders went to war with soldiers with no combat experience - soldiers more like Paul Buffington.
"I'm still a little bit nervous," said Buffington, a resident of Provo, "but it's good to know that most of my leaders have already been through this. I'll be able to learn from their experiences."
Combat veterans like Dixon say they're eager to pass on what they've learned. "The main thing I'll be preaching to my team is [to avoid] complacency," said Dixon, a native of San Diego who works at Dugway Proving Ground. "There's a lot of down time over there, and it's easy to get complacent - but you still might get mortared at any time."
Other vets, like Danielle Harding, say they'll try to help the combat newbies get through the initial fears of being at war.
Harding survived multiple roadside bomb explosions and several firefights during her first tour in Iraq; fellow sergeants brag, on her behalf, that she saved several soldiers during one gunfight.
The 22-year-old Orem native takes it in stride - and hopes she can help others learn to do the same.
"It all goes in slow motion and once you've done it a few times, you really do get used to it," Harding said.
Other combat veterans say they feel more comfortable returning to war because they better understand the dangers than they did their first time out.
"I've been told that every deployment is different," said Army medic Brian Jenkins, of Ephraim, who served in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005. "But I've got to believe that what I've learned will come in useful."
Martinez, the company commander, is hoping that too. He's among the 100 or so soldiers in the 116th who have not yet been to war.
"I'll definitely be relying on them," Martinez said.
The experience does come at a cost, and not just to the military families who have been asked to weather a second deployment. Martinez said his unit comprises soldiers from all nine different major commands of the Utah Guard.
"And my biggest focus, right now, is to get these individuals to perform as a team," he said. "Since this unit was set up to perform a particular mission, and since we've been put together in this way, we don't all have the fundamental skills necessary. Those will have to be learned."
That too is a place the combat vets may be of use. One of the first rules of war service, many say, is flexibility.