National Guard adjusts to post-9/11 realityOverseas deployments become way of life for part-time soldiers.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
In 1986, young South Dakotans joined the National Guard to help pay their college tuition, help out during emergencies and contribute to the nation’s military readiness.
Serving on active duty in a warzone was a possibility, but not a likelihood.
In those nearly 26 years since Ethan native John Weber enlisted, the role of the Guard has changed dramatically. The Guard’s new role became reality for him in January 2008 when, by then a lieutenant colonel, he was put in charge of a forward operating base in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Deployed as part of an embedded training team, Weber and his soldiers were in charge of providing training for Afghan army and police forces in the region.
Weber and his soldiers had constant reminders of how dangerous the area was.
“We were in what was considered a high-threat area, so it was pretty intense,” Weber said. “We experienced some sort of insurgent attack almost every day, whether it was an improvised explosive device, suicide bomber, or some other kind of attack. It was a very dangerous area.”
Weber said he was satisfied with what his group of soldiers accomplished during the deployment. But the experience wasn’t what he envisioned when he joined the Guard all those years ago.
“At least people my age, when they joined, probably never imagined they would end up being in a place like we were, dealing with some of the things we had to deal with,” Weber said. “When I joined, the possibility of going off and defending your country was always there, but once you get on a deployment it takes on a whole new perspective.”
The harsh realities of time in a warzone left a deep impression on Weber.
“I was in command, and I lost some of my soldiers. And as much as the military prepares you for that, you can’t possibly understand it until it actually happens,” he said.
Now deputy directorate of plans at the South Dakota Army National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Rapid City, Weber is responsible for several of the Guard’s major programs in South Dakota.
The narrative of Weber’s experience while deployed overseas has become all too familiar for many of South Dakota’s National Guard members.
“You look back to when I had only been in for five or six years, the possibility of deploying was there, but it wasn’t as great,” Weber said. “Now with wars going on, you know that at some point you’re probably going to go.”
South Dakota’s Army National Guard has deployed about 4,700 soldiers and the state’s Air National Guard has sent another 1,000 in support of the war on terrorism. Of the total number, about 3,000 were deployed to Iraq.
There are two units from South Dakota serving in Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn — 66 soldiers with the 189th Aviation Regiment, of Rapid City, and 64 soldiers of the 139th Brigade Support Battalion, of Brookings.
Another four units from South Dakota are in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom — 185 soldiers with the 200th Engineer Company, of Pierre, Mobridge and Chamberlain; eight soldiers with Detachment 48, Operational Support Airlift Command, of Rapid City; seven soldiers with the 451st Engineer Detachment, of Sturgis; and 160 soldiers with the 842nd Engineer Company, of Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Sturgis.
Six units from South Dakota have been notified they will be deployed to Afghanistan in the next 16 months.
These include 75 soldiers with the 730th Area Support Medical Company, of Vermillion; four soldiers with the 1978th Contingency Contracting Team, of Rapid City; 14 soldiers with the 927th Survey and Design Team, of Sioux Falls; 69 soldiers with the 152nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, of Pierre; 20 soldiers with the 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, of Rapid City and Sioux Falls; and 124 soldiers with the 235th Military Police Company, of Rapid City and Sioux Falls.
The frequent deployments have become an unexpected way of life for members of the Guard.
“When I joined, I had no idea, or even considered, I would be a veteran of Afghanistan, and I never thought I would help with Hurricane Katrina relief,” said Sgt. Adam Herrmann, of Mitchell. “I never thought I could have done the things I’ve done in just 10 short years.”
Herrmann was deployed to Afghanistan as part of an embedded training team working to train Afghan army and police forces.
Before he left the United States, Herrmann said he and fellow soldiers were given advice from others just returning from Afghanistan.
“They said to think of it like football: ‘If you can move the chain just once while you’re there, it means you’ve completed your mission.’ ”
With almost 11 years of experience in the South Dakota National Guard, Herrmann currently works at Fort Meade, near Sturgis, as a non-commissioned officer with the 196th Regional Training Institute.
In addition to the foreign deployments, many South Dakota National Guard members were called to action in their own state last spring and summer to help with the relief effort after heavy flooding on the Missouri River.
Staff Sgt. Robert Thompson, of Mitchell, was among the first to respond to the disaster when he and the 147th Forward Support Company began making sandbags to protect vital infrastructure in Pierre.
“I know we accomplished a lot there,” Thompson said, who estimated his company made tens of thousands of sandbags in about three weeks in Pierre.
Thompson is also a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was deployed to Baghdad from September 2005 until September 2006.
Thompson was a member of the patrol that included Staff Sgt. Greg Wagner, of Mitchell, the day Wagner was killed in May 2006.
After 25 years with the South Dakota National Guard, Thompson plans to retire in January.
“Everything the National Guard does, I have done,” Thompson said.
He said there was a moment when the Guard’s role changed, whether Guard members recognized it or not.
“The minute that first plane hit the World Trade Center, I knew there would be big changes,” Thompson said. “There will always be that option to use us for conflict if needed. We’ve got a lot of soldiers that have deployment experience, and that experience is invaluable.”
Some soldiers believe the active role they have played in the wars in the Middle East and in relief efforts at home may have permanently changed the public’s perception of the Guard.
“When I joined, a lot of people thought maybe the Guard was a good way to earn some extra money for college,” Herrmann said. “Now it’s more than that.”
Herrmann suspects anyone enlisting in the Guard now probably realizes an overseas deployment is likely.
Weber said the possibility of deployment should not deter people from taking advantage of what the Guard can offer.
“The experience today is going to be very different than what it was 25 years ago when I joined,” Weber said. “You’re still going to get skills that carry over into the civilian world, and you’re also going to get that deployment experience.”
Sgt. 1st Class Jared Richter has been a recruiter for the National Guard in Mitchell since September 2001. He said there are common reasons people want to enlist.
“The biggest reasons are the training opportunities and the chance to serve their country,” Richter said.
He added that the benefits toward education, such as tuition assistance, also help attract recruits.
On the issue of deployments, Richter said he is very upfront with potential recruits.
“When we talk to people about joining the Guard, we tell them that at some point in this six-year career, odds are very favorable that at some point they will deploy,” he said.
Richter explained how recruitment has changed over the years.
“When I first started recruiting, we were just attacked and there was a lot of patriotism and a lot of people willing to serve,” Richter said. “Then for a few years we weren’t getting as many enlistments and people were more hesitant to join.”
Richter said there is no longer a great need for troops like there has been in the past.
“We’re not turning anyone away, but the standards have gotten a lot tougher,” he said.
The subject of the Guard’s changing role reached the floor of the U.S. Senate last May when a bill was introduced that would give the National Guard a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has since gained the support of 66 other senators, including Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Support for the bill can be found among National Guard members.
“I think it would give the National Guard a great voice at the most senior level,” Herrmann said.
Weber also expressed his support of the idea.
“It would definitely be a benefit to the Guard,” he said. “If the Guard is going to continue to be an operational force, to have someone to provide input, I would support that.”
Whether the Guard continues to play a prominent role in events at home and abroad, its members seem ready to continue to do whatever is asked of them.
“Those who are in the Guard today understand that this is the environment that the Guard is in,” Weber said. “They understand that they’re going to deploy and they want to be a part of that. Whether it’s a natural disaster or a deployment, they want to do that.”
Weber expressed his confidence that the service of the National Guard’s soldiers is not going unnoticed.
“Within communities across the country, people realize that the Guard has stepped up.”