Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guard in gear for Iraq

Soldiers in the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team have assembled in a crowded base camp near Kuwait City and have spent their first few days overseas collecting vehicles and gear hauled by Navy cargo ships from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.

The soldiers also were drilled in techniques to spot roadside bombs and spent time zeroing in their weapons, according to a news release sent by e-mail from Kuwait Saturday.

They may have to get used to being crowded.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it wants a record number of soldiers in-country during January’s scheduled national elections in Iraq. The Pentagon has extended the deployments of thousands of soldiers in Iraq, including elements of the 25th Infantry Division that the 116th was scheduled to relieve in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

It appears the 4,300 newcomers will try to squeeze in at the main airbase there and the two units will patrol the area together until March.

“This will allow us to absolutely pile onto the enemy with about 30 percent more force,” Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander in charge of northeastern Iraq, said in a story published Friday by the Chicago Tribune.

Individual soldiers were less sanguine.

“I had a son in October and I haven’t seen him yet,” Sgt. Eric Wing, 24, told the Tribune. Soldiers like Wing had been told as recently as late November that they would be going home in early January, according to accounts in the Honolulu Advertiser.

The Tribune reported that the two units will overlap for about three months and that soldiers in the Hawaii-based 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry (Light) will be moved into tents at Kirkuk Air Base to make room for the newcomers just as cold, wet winter weather is arriving.

The newspaper reported the soldiers are clearing out of the cozy two-person Conex housing (essentially refurbished shipping containers) into tents to make way for the 116th.

Not all 4,300 soldiers in the Idaho-based brigade will remain at Kirkuk Air Base.

Individual units, including Delta Company, the 97 combat engineers from the Coeur d’Alene and Bonners Ferry areas, will be dispersed to seven smaller forward operations bases stretching from the mountainous border with Iran into the tip of the Sunni Triangle south of Mosul. Delta Company has been attached to a task force composed of the Montana National Guard’s 163rd Infantry.

Col. Lloyd Miles, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry, said his soldiers now have more time to share their hard-won local knowledge with their replacements: “We know this city – all its ins and outs – and that will be extremely useful as we approach these elections.”

Senior officers with the 25th Infantry and the 116th Brigade Combat Team met at the Kirkuk Air Base Thursday, the Tribune reported, to go over their “relief in place” plans. A date for transfer of authority has not been established.

The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that it plans to have 150,000 troops in Iraq – up about 10,000 from current levels – to counter expected violence from insurgents during the run-up to Iraqi national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. About 148,000 troops were deployed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Many of the Idaho soldiers, who began landing last Sunday in Kuwait, expressed surprise at weather that’s been cold and rainy, with temperatures dipping at times into the 30s, wrote Capt. Monte Hibbert, Pocatello, in an e-mail. Hibbert, who co-owns a bilingual newspaper in Pocatello, is serving as a public affairs officer in the brigade.

Neither Hibbert nor his boss, Lt. Col. Gordon Petrie, an eastern Oregon judge serving as a public affairs officer, could answer questions about when exactly the 4,300 soldiers in the Idaho-based 116th Brigade Combat Team would cross the frontier into Iraq or if their orders have changed given the Pentagon’s reshuffling of deployed units a few days ago.

The “word on the sand” from Kuwait had the 116th Brigade Combat Team staying in that country only two weeks instead of the typical three for newly arriving units. This could not be officially confirmed, however.

The soldiers appear to be getting some initial excitement just by driving their heavy rigs from the port to a staging area on base. The soldiers in Delta Company had been given a primer on Kuwaiti driving habits last week in Louisiana, with the gist of the talk being “Rules? We don’t need no stinking rules.”

It appears the briefing was right on.

“The drivers down here drive totally different than they do at home,” Sgt. Bradley Loewen of Genesee, a member of Bravo Company, 116th Engineer Battalion, told Hibbert. “Overall, though, the convoys went pretty well.”

The cold and rain were a surprise. “I wasn’t expecting this, I thought it would be a little warmer,” Spc. Wesley Jones, Jerome, Idaho, told Hibbert. Jones is a member of Bravo Company, 2-116th Armor Battalion.

Most soldiers are living in large 30-foot by 100-foot canvas tents with fluorescent lighting, European 220V three-prong outlets, heating/cooling systems and plywood flooring, Hibbert wrote. The Kuwait base is strained by a large number of incoming troops and, Hibbert said, lines seem to form for everything – meals, laundry, post exchange – you name it. While standing in line, one soldier commented that he now knows the meaning of the “wait” in Kuwait.

“The best time to shower is real late at night because everyone is in bed,” Staff Sgt. Dan Ackerman, Nampa, a member of the brigade headquarters company, told Hibbert. “It gives the water heaters a little time to recuperate.”

While the camp is crowded, Hibbert wrote, it does have a surprising number of conveniences from home, including a post office, coffee shop, pizzeria, Burger King and Subway sandwich shop. All operate out of modular trailers.