ALEXANDRIA, La. – It’s only a matter of hours before the 4,300 soldiers in the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team leave for Iraq.
Spc. Gary Bough spent some of them Wednesday packing his personal belongings, including a gift he received while on leave earlier this month from his wife of two years.
“Thanksgiving? That’s tomorrow, isn’t it?” said Bough, 32, of Coeur d’Alene, in the temporary barracks some soldiers call the chicken coop because it reminds them of county fair livestock barns. “Our days do run together. There is so much on our minds.”
He and other soldiers seemed almost oblivious to the holiday and visiting dignitaries.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne arrived here by military transport plane from Boise on Tuesday afternoon and on Wednesday, visited the soldiers housed at the old England Air Base, adjacent to the Alexandria airport, to begin his weeklong stint of shaking hands and chatting with Idaho soldiers.
Kempthorne said he will be in the serving line at the chow hall today to dish out Thanksgiving dinner, and once the planes begin soaring toward war on Friday, he will be at every departure.
“I intend to be at the ramp with a simple message: Thank you and God bless you,” Kempthorne said.
As departure grows closer, the maintenance workers and teachers and mechanics and bank managers and police officers drawn from Guard armories in Post Falls and Bonners Ferry are spending their final days stateside at the ancient barracks set amid a flat landscape of rain-pounded grass.
A tornado and a thick rain pelting like fists punched the metal rooftops from a lightning-whitened sky Tuesday night, leaving only a curtain of gray and a chilly wind Wednesday. Ditches and sloughs have filled with water the color of chocolate.
Training is over. They still dress in desert camouflage, but aren’t required to wear body armor or helmets or carry weapons like they had been since beginning their training in early July at Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort Polk, La.
The training scenarios presumed the soldiers were already in Iraq, and the men and women of the 116th were drilled intensely by combat veterans who had been there and who drew training scenarios from the ambiguous and dangerous situations that can erupt without warning.
Delta Company, a company of combat engineers from North Idaho, is headed to a forward operations base where there are mortar and rocket attacks, where there has been a 1 percent casualty rate and a 15 percent rate of soldiers wounded.
“Their response to this call to duty has been outstanding,” Kempthorne said Wednesday afternoon. “We need to say that out loud and I need to say that in person.”
Spc. Paul Sturgis, 36, of Coeur d’Alene, is among the many who have answered that call.
Kempthorne and Sturgis passed each other on the way to the chow line. The governor working the line of soldiers hunched against the chill. Sturgis went past without a pause, hustling to get a place in the line that stretched so far he groaned when he saw it. It was already past noon. There was a formation at 1300 hours and Sturgis wanted time to eat. Small talk with visiting dignitaries would take away precious time and Sturgis was getting in the groove of being a soldier again.
“I was out of the military 10 years,” he said, sharing smokes and stories as he ambled toward the mess hall, skipping and jumping to miss the worst of the mud.
A friend of his had asked the former combat soldier to consider joining the 116th Combat Engineer’s Battalion based in North Idaho.
“He had to ask me three times,” he said. The friend finally hit the right button. “He said I could help bring all the young pups home.”
Being asked to lend his experience was a potent request, and Sturgis said he spent a sleepless night before deciding to join the Guard, knowing it would bring him here – dwindling hours away from an airplane taking him to northern Iraq for a year.
He now handles an automatic weapon, the saw (squad automatic weapon) for First Platoon, Third Squad, which requires him to carry the tripod-mounted machine gun and 900 rounds of ammunition to lay down suppressive fire for his squad on patrol.
“I weigh 220,” he said. “With all my battle gear, I’m 300 pounds.”
Sturgis said even if everyone returns uninjured, all the soldiers will be profoundly affected.
“When I came back the first time, my mindset was completely turned around” from civilian realities, he said. He talks to other soldiers. “I am willing to talk about anything with anybody,” Sturgis said. “I’ve been through a lot of situations in my life.”
1st Sgt. Michael Kish was back in his element Wednesday, dressed in desert camo and bouncing on the balls of his feet as he described conditions in Iraq to fellow North Idaho Guard members who will be getting on an airplane Saturday morning for a year’s deployment.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Kish was a reluctant civilian, home on leave after four months of combat training. He was antsy, he said, waiting for the clock to wind all the way down so he could get to Iraq and “get to work,” as he put it.
Kish warned the soldiers there will be few amenities where they are headed.
“Guys, this is not FOB Warrior (the Kirkuk Air Base) with a theater and a Burger King and a Subway. This is a real forward operations base, and we are warriors and we are going there,” Kish said.
With the imminent departure and the governor and other dignitaries paying a farewell visit, the soldiers in the 116th were pretty much given room to roam.
They discussed Tuesday night’s pounding rainstorm. One soldier, on a dare, tried to leap one of the ditches now filled with chest-deep water. He landed short with a giant splash that drew cheers. They joked that they have become so accustomed to desert heat after training in Fort Bliss that they are freezing in the November winds in Louisiana – when, a year ago as North Idahoans used to braving “real” weather, they would have laughed if someone called this winter.
But there they were on a gray afternoon, shivering and hunching against the wind and running back to barracks to get jackets as they hurried to line up for buses that would take them to the Rapides Parish Coliseum for a free concert in their honor.
“Paul Revere and the Raiders will be playing,” Kish told the assembled soldiers to Delta Company to blank stares from younger people and double thumbs-up from a few older ones. “It’s mandatory, I’m sorry. It’s mandatory for everyone.”
Mandatory fun. It’s the Army.
“It’s minimal, it’s minimal guys,” Kish said. “I don’t want to hear no bitches and gripes, we are asking very little of you.”
From Gov. Kempthorne on down, others disagree.