Friday, July 14, 2006

Sheriff's employee reflects on Iraq combat duty

Express Staff Writer

Heather Saunders served a year in Iraq with the National Guard 116th Brigade Combat Team. She is now glad to be back at work at the Blaine County Jail. Photo by Willy Cook

Several months after returning to Idaho, Heather Saunders rubs a tender right shoulder, a painful reminder of the year she spent as an Idaho National Guard soldier in Iraq.

Yet, Saunders, an assistant jail administrator at the Blaine County Sheriff's Office, considers herself fortunate. She didn't bring home emotional scars, she's glad to be back with her family on their 80-acre farm near Richfield, and she's proud of the year of service she gave to her country. In fact, she's willing to do it again, under the right circumstances.

"I found myself bored most of the time," Saunders said in an interview earlier this week. "If they had something to keep me busy, I wouldn't mind going back again."

But her tour of duty had its exciting moments. Iraq after all, is a war zone and the front lines can be just about anywhere.

Saunders, an E-5 sergeant, went to Iraq in November 2004 with the lead elements of the 116th Brigade Combat Team, a 4,000-strong unit made of National Guard troops from Idaho, Montana, Utah and Oregon.

It wasn't her first tour of duty. She served six years previously in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Japan three of those years. But it was her first time in a combat zone.

Working in personnel support, Saunders spent most of her time in Iraq at the 116th's base in Kirkuk, a large Iraqi city in the Kurdish region northeast of Baghdad.

Saunders said insurgents frequently fired rocket rounds into the base, but they seldom came close to hitting anything.

"Actually, it was relatively quiet there," she said. "We had our share of deaths and wounded soldiers. But the biggest problem we had is that the insurgents kept blowing up the pipeline."

Eleven soldiers in the combat team were killed during the unit's yearlong tour.

"It was horrendous for us, but was actually quite low for a unit in Iraq. They tested us," Saunders said, referring to the insurgents. "But we had no history there, so they weren't gunning for us."

That wasn't the case for the famed 101st Airborne Division, the unit that replaced the 116th in Kirkuk and was one of the main U.S. Army divisions engaged when the U.S. invaded the country.

"They already had a history in Iraq and the insurgents were gunning for them," she said. "They went in to replace us, and boy were we glad to see them."

In personnel support, one of Saunders' main duties was causality tracking. She said the Army is very strict in its notifications to family members and making sure those notifications occur timely and are coordinated is a complicated matter.

Still nursing a painful shoulder after seven months back in the U.S., Saunders said the mysterious ailment occurred sometime when she was in Iraq, but she's not exactly sure when. She said she mostly likely suffered nerve damage to the shoulder from toting around all the heavy gear she had to carry.

The units' primary functions were to train Iraqi soldiers and police and to help the country establish a civilian infrastructure. She said National Guard units are particularly adept at teaching civilian skills because all the soldiers have civilian jobs at home.

Saunders said she supports the U.S. involvement in Iraq because it freed the country of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"They had 10 years with Sadaam Hussein running around slaughtering the Kurds and slaughtering the Shiites. There are hundreds and hundreds of homeless people in Iraq, and they were homeless when we got there."

Saunders said nearly every statue, portrait or symbol of Saddam Hussein in the country has been destroyed, defaced or riddled with bullet holes.

"And it wasn't done by us," she said.

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