In a large expanse of desert near Yakima, local troops train for their return to Iraq Battle ready
By Rick Steigmeyer
YAKIMA — Iraq is still a few months off. But the Yakima Training Center's dusty, sagebrush-covered sands with views of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier make a good Mideast war zone stand-in for the 2,400 Washington National Guardsmen preparing to head there in October. Nationwide, more than 8,000 National Guardsmen were notified last October that they will be deployed.
The Army National Guard's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team has been training at the Yakima center since July 12. Friday was their last day before taking a short leave and then heading to Fort McCoy, Wis., on Aug. 18. They'll train there until late October and then will be shipped to Kuwait. By early November, they'll be put to work providing security for convoys and new installations in northern Iraq. For many of the part-time soldiers, it will be their second tour since the War in Iraq began in 2003.
Among those deployed are 35 members of the 161st Infantry National Guard unit in Wenatchee. Soldiers like Sgt. David Flick, Pfc. Angel Efren Bravo and Spc. Matthew Comar will all be leaving their wives and young children behind again.
"It's definitely difficult. It's not easy to leave them, especially now with a little one. But I put my arms in the circle and I'm ready to do this," said Flick, who would have celebrated his seventh wedding anniversary earlier this week with his wife Linda had he been home. His son, Donald, is 18 months old. Flick, 29, said he'll maintain contact with the family through daily e-mails and Internet phone calls.
Extreme times call for extreme measures, said Col. Ronald Kapral, the 81st Guard's commander.
"Ten years ago, we wouldn't have been here. But everything changed after 9/11," he said during a briefing of media last Sunday. Normally, the National Guard is called into active service only to help out during domestic crises. Guardsmen were called in to help after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. They were sent to Chehalis last November after that Western Washington community was ravaged by floods.
But during times of war, they can also be called overseas to fight. The 81st was last deployed in 2004 and served active duty for 18 months, nearly 12 months in Iraq. This time the guardsmen will serve for 12 months, including nine months in Iraq. They should return home by August 2009. Kapral said 60 percent of the brigade's members now deployed are going to Iraq for at least a second time since the war began.
Staff Sgt. Tim Waters of East Wenatchee returned from Iraq in 2005. Now his wife, Denise, and two sons, Thatcher, 6, and Cooper, 4, will be left alone again. Waters also had to take leave of his job as a district manager for Starbucks. He said putting your life on hold to go to war is difficult for soldiers, as well as the family, friends and jobs they have to leave. Coming back home after deployment can be even harder.
"They've all learned how to do without you. You have to learn to put it back together," he said about his return to family life. At work, he said he continually feels he's a couple of seconds out of sync. Going back to a job and worrying about a chair being out of place doesn't seem very important after dealing with life and death issues 24 hours a day, he said.
"It takes a long time to get back to where you were. In some ways, you never do," Waters said.
500 to a tent
Guardsmen were busy with shooting drills and convoy protection simulations last Sunday when reporters were invited to visit the training center. There were few women at the training center, the exception being a couple of medics and an Army chaplain, who seemed to be the focus of a "60 Minutes" video crew.
Capt. Tim Ozmer, a full-time National Guard officer from Spokane, said there are plenty of women in the National Guard who play equal roles, but the armed combat brigades, including the 81st, are male only.
During their four-week training at the center, the soldiers were housed in huge tents. More than 500 cots were positioned side by side, offering soldiers little space and no privacy. Between training sessions, they sat on their cots, cleaned the M4 carbines they are never without and practiced packing and repacking their few possessions into two packs. Everything is about preparation.
Cpl. Mark Shaw, 39, of Wenatchee, has been a member of the National Guard for nearly 20 years. The 81st's mobilization put a hold on his retirement, but Shaw said he didn't mind.
"I was going to go anyway," said Shaw, who took leave from his job as a mechanic for Bob Feil Boats and Motors. "I want to be there with these guys to see this end."
Gunning without mistakes
There are no smiles on the three heavily outfitted men riding in two diesel-powered Humvees that lurch and stop on their mock reconnaissance through the desert shrubs. A Pasco guard unit was going through the training today. The day before, it was the Wenatchee unit going through the same movements, over and over until they got it right.
"Target! 11 o'clock! 1,000 meters! Fire!" shouts Truck Commander Sgt. Tim Hollingsworth of Walla Walla.
Spc. Terry Osborn of Tri-Cities lets loose a deafening burst of staccato fire from the M240 Bravo machine gun he has mounted on the roof of the Humvee. He plants his feet solidly on the floor of the vehicle and leans back against the circular hole in the roof that lets him peer over his gun. No ordinary sunroof this. Puffs of dust dance around a distant target ahead of the vehicle as Osborn squeezes off another burst of gunfire at Hollingsworth's command. A rain of hot 7.62 mm shell casings clinks to the floor inside the Humvee as the rounds are belt-fed through the gun. Driver Jose Garcia of Kennewick speeds ahead to the next target and the shooting begins again.
The target doesn't shoot back, but there's another Humvee running a parallel course about 50 yards away shooting at the same target. The object of the training session is to synchronize the two-unit maneuver without shooting each other.
"It helps us with situational awareness. So we know where our partners are at," Hollingsworth said after the training run.
The session may have only been a dress rehearsal for what's to come, but it was serious business.
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Fresh called the teams together after a couple of runs and scolded them for some sloppy work.
"We've got to practice good habits out here. Our crew safety relies on you," he said.
Before the soldiers could get back to their vehicles, Capt. Ozmer yelled at them to hold up.
"Are we tracking? This is not JV folks," he barked.
"Yes sir," they replied.
"You make your mistakes here and you learn a valuable lesson," Ozmer told this reporter minutes later. "You make them in Iraq and it could be a memory you never forget. You can also do everything right and still get killed."
Several Wenatchee-area soldiers were headed out on a convoy security practice run later that morning. They would be out traveling over the center's miles of sandy roads for the next several hours. Before they left, Lt. Kelly Sowder, a former Wenatchee resident, told his company of 31 men, many of them from North Central Washington, how to stay alive while on a convoy mission in Iraq.
"You look out and check your five. Open your door, look down, close your door and look around 5 meters out. Then you step out and check 25 meters," he said. The driver of the vehicle never steps out. Most IEDs — improvised explosive devices — are buried on the driver's side, he said, and it's the driver who is responsible for getting his vehicle out of a problem situation.
The group of men listened closely, among them Wenatchee soldiers Spc. William Wacker, 24, and newly married Spc. Joshua Diede, neither of whom have been to Iraq before. Spc. Thomas Hart knows what it's like. He was there three years ago. He'll be leaving his wife, two young sons and a stepdaughter behind.
"It's tough, but that's the nature of the beast. I wanted to go back. It's hard leaving the kids but I'm proud to serve my country," he said.
Also listening in was Spc. Kirsten Zucati, 35, who returned from an 18-month stint, most of it in Iraq, only last November. He moved to Omak from Juneau, Alaska, last winter so he could return to the war with the Wenatchee guard unit. His wife is expecting their seventh child. All are girls.
"I'm not sure why I want to go back. There are some scary moments, but overall, I feel more relaxed and at ease there," he said.
Spc. Richard Johnson, 27, returned from Iraq with an Idaho guard unit last October. He transferred to the Wenatchee guard unit after getting married in May knowing he would have to go back to Iraq later this year.
"It's harder this time, now that I'm married to Lara. We discussed it and figured I would get redeployed eventually wherever I was. It's better to get it done so I can go back to school," said Johnson, who wants to be a teacher.
Sowder said he's responsible for the soldiers in Bravo Company and wants to bring them all back alive and in one piece.
"These are our brothers, our neighbors, the guys we work with back home. They've all volunteered to leave their families, leave their jobs and go over to Iraq in our interest," he said. "They all have their different reasons for joining, but they're here to put their lives on the line to protect what we stand for. Now we're one big family."
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151