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Wednesday, May 26, 2004


Idaho National Guard retools for Iraq

Battalion’s advance team heads to Texas

Express Staff Writer

Members of the Idaho National Guard were scheduled to wrap up annual training today at Gowen Field in Boise. Of the 3,200 members in the Idaho Guard, 750 soldiers with leadership roles have received orders to travel to Ft. Bliss, Texas, for combat training.

Mortar specialists attached to the Gooding Armory set coordinates for a mock mortar firing during the annual National Guard training at Gowen Field in Boise this month. Express photo by Matt Furber

The men and women, who normally are paid to give up one weekend per month and two weeks per year to maintain basic military skills, will soon receive three months of combat training before joining operations in Iraq. National Guard members receive regular weapons training and are required to pass an annual weapons certification.

The training will be "top notch" and will adequately prepare the citizen soldiers heading to Iraq for the theater of engagement they will be entering, said Charles Abell, principal deputy under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Abell was speaking to guard members assembled for a panel discussion Friday, May 14, in Boise.

The guard will begin full combat training at Ft. Bliss, after the first week of June. The balance of the brigade is anxiously awaiting orders telling them when they will follow their fellow soldiers, said Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, public affairs spokesman for the Idaho National Guard.

In a break from field training, bookwork and lectures Abell joined Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, senior Guard officers and several Pentagon officials for a panel discussion to answer logistical questions still facing soldiers as they prepare to leave home for at least one year.

One of the main concerns for soldiers was healthcare. Troops sought guidance to the intricate programs available through the Armed Forces called TriCare.

In addition to giving advice, the meeting was also intended to boost morale and thank troops for their dedication.

Spec. Heather Saunders

Heather Saunders, 44, of the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office is one of the members of the advance team who will be federalized and become part of the U.S. Army June 7. Saunders plans to write dispatches of her experiences in Iraq, which she expects to last at least 18 months.

"It’s called ‘Interruption Iraq" because I’ve never experienced a bigger interruption of my life," she said. "I’m looking forward to it as a learning experience. I know the real thing is different than what you imagine. I am going seeking understanding."

So far, most of the citizen soldiers have been closing ranks, settling their affairs and preparing for what most believe will be a fall, 2004 deployment.

On the Gowen campus, specialists Jason Whitworth, a student at Idaho State University and Mark Foster, a retail manager at Sears, both with a detachment of the Guard from the Gooding armory, simulated mortar fire. Whitworth and Gooding called out phantom coordinates and fired imaginary charges in a mock combat operation. But, the pair could soon be firing live rounds in real combat.

Simultaneously, a scout detachment from the Hailey armory--"the eyes and ears of the battalion"--was firing live rounds at targets in the desert 20 miles from the city.

"If they pass their live ammunition qualification here, they won’t have to do it at Ft. Bliss," said career soldier Capt. Corey Dahlquist, who works full-time orienting the part time soldiers and escorting visitors to Gowen Field.

"It’s been good training with a lot of sit-ups and crunches. But, it has taken a lot of attention away from home life, making sure my soldiers are well trained," said Sgt. Brian Humphreys of Hailey, who formerly served in the Marine Corps. "It’s scary. I worry most about what’s going on at home."

Another soldier, holding open his copy of a "Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks," was running a drill with other guardsmen about how to find and mark unexploded ordinance and maneuver around land mines.

Operation Iraqi Freedom will require the Idaho brigade to retool many of its combat skills. Alpha Company will remain a tank company, but Bravo and Charlie companies will be combined into a new Bravo Company as a light armored company.

During lectures, soldiers learned the finer points of weapon systems management and how to avoid target overkill and fratricide, the biggest killer in Desert Storm, one instructor said.

Saunders initial active duty will be for 575 days, and she said she will probably be deployed from Texas. Saunders had a 17-year break in her military service after spending six years playing clarinet in the Army Band in the late 70s and early 80s. She signed up with the National Guard in 1999.

"I was bored. National Guard service gave me something to do," she said. "It’s good training. It helps me keep in shape. As an extra job I make more in one weekend than I would doing something else."

Saunders said that after 9/11 she suspected the guard would eventually go active.

"Last year we received an unlimited budget," she said. "We had the ability to get the equipment we needed."

The Idaho National Guard battalion has not been called up since the Korean War and has served mostly battling the impact of natural disasters, doing flood work and helping the Forest Service fight forest fires by providing meals and transportation.

Saunders said one concern is what the state will do if the Guard is called up in case of such emergencies. But, she said new recruits and guardsmen from other states who have not been called up and any soldiers not called up due to health problems will provide "rear support."

Saunders is leaving behind a husband, a farm, a "bunch of animals" and her work at the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.

"There are a lot of things I’m going to miss," she said. "If I had kids, it would be that much harder."

Idaho National Guard Chaplain Dan Robinson said the thing that will maintain morale for the troops is maintaining a belief in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said camaraderie is also important because knowing that fellow soldiers are risking their lives creates a synergy. Robinson was on active duty in Germany and during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.

"You keep your buddy going to get this mission accomplished," he said. "You know you are going to do it together as soon as your boots hit the ground."


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