By Kathleen T. Rhem
WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2006 – Three hundred one soldiers with an Alaska-based unit extended in Iraq will return to the combat zone to serve with their comrades in arms, Army officials announced yesterday. A total of 378 soldiers with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team had returned to Alaska in June and July at the end of their scheduled 12-month tour in Iraq. But before the rest of the 4,000-soldier unit could redeploy, officials halted their return to bolster Iraqi and coalition forces in Baghdad.
Now, 301 of those soldiers who made it back to Alaska will return to their unit within the week. The other 77 soldiers were considered essential to unit operations in Alaska or had other special circumstances. Some had already reported to mandatory schools or follow-on assignments, or had medical issues or family emergencies to deal with.
"From a tactical and military standpoint, this makes all the sense in the world. It is much preferable to reassemble a proven team that has fought together for so long and performed so well in such a difficult environment," Army Major General Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of U.S. Army Alaska, at Fort Wainwright, said. "The brigade needs these soldiers back to be the whole and very capable force that it has been over the last year."
Army officials briefed reporters in the Pentagon on the decision late yesterday. Jacoby and other Alaska-based unit leaders, soldiers and family members participated via video teleconference. Jacoby said that on Aug. 1 he told the soldiers who had returned to Alaska to expect to go back to Iraq. They and their families took the news with characteristic stoicism, officials said. "Those of us on the periphery of this decision can only begin to imagine the thoughts and emotions going through the minds of these soldiers and especially the minds of their families," he said.
"I would ask all Americans to keep these incredibly brave, incredibly dedicated members of your armed forces and their families in your thoughts every single day," Jacoby added. "Truly these young men and women are the best our country has to offer. We can be very, very proud of them." Several soldiers and soldiers' wives in Alaska answered reporters' questions during the news briefing.
Sgt. Brian Pearce, a member of Headquarters Battery, 4th Battalion, 11th Field Artillery, is one of the soldiers preparing to return to Iraq. He said he and his fellow soldiers have their minds set on returning to the troops they've served with for the past year. "We're leaving our families back here, but we're going back to our extended family in Iraq, and that's where our minds have been since we came back here," he said. "We're just ready to go ... get everybody gathered up, do what we've got to do, and come home."
"My husband ... took an oath, and he signed his name on a piece of paper, and I knew what I was getting into when I married him," said Terry Tanner, whose husband is assigned to Battery C, 4th Battalion, 11th Field Artillery Regiment. "That's pretty much it. Right now all I'm doing is making sure that my kids are taken care of and we're on a normal routine and schedule." Mary Cheney, whose husband is assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, echoed those sentiments. Cheney recently had the couple's fourth child, but still said she accepts what Army life brings.
"Am I happy about him being gone? No. But I accept what he's doing. If he was given the choice to come home or to stay with his soldiers, he would stay with his soldiers, so I would never question his dedication to his career," she said. "I understand that that's where his place of business is at this point. His heart is with his family, but his mind and his dedication are to his soldiers and to the Army and to the brigade."
Tanner and Cheney are leaders of their units' family readiness groups. Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the Army's personnel chief, called them "stalwart Army spouses." "This (change in redeployment schedule) really does represent not only the extraordinary versatility of our Army and our soldiers, but I want to emphasize once again the level of commitment of the family members," Rochelle said at the Pentagon.
But, he said, their dedication to their loved ones' Army mission doesn't lessen the service's responsibility to care for these families. "In fact," he added, "it even heightens ... our commitment to make sure that they get every consideration possible with respect for this last-minute change of mission."
Army leaders are particularly mindful of deployment stress, especially in children affected by this deployment rollercoaster. Fort Wainwright Garrison Commander Lt. Col. Ron Johnson said the Army community is pulling out all stops to make sure families in Alaska are prepared to handle additional stress from this change in mission. "One of the primary concerns in taking care of families is giving them skills and tools they need to deal with deployment-related issues," he said.
Since receiving word of the deployment extension, the Army has augmented the local support staff with child psychologists, adolescent counselors, and specially trained chaplains with advanced degrees in family counseling, Johnson explained. "All these people are working together to focus on dealing with the family-related issues and particularly the children," he said.
Brigadier General Anthony A. Cucolo III, the Army's public affairs chief, said the Army has learned from previous zero-hour changes in mission, just as it is learning from this one. "In this uncertain time, there is no question that the Army has to be prepared to do this again. I just want to say we are focused on the 172nd Stryker Brigade right now, but every soldier, every family member is extremely important," he said. "The Army takes it very seriously that we have to address those individual issues. ...
"We have not been perfect in the past, and we are probably not perfect now," he added. "But, boy we're trying to get there." Despite the stress of the extension and sending soldiers who recently returned home back to Iraq, Jacoby said, the Alaska Army community considers the change in mission a point of pride. The 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team "was agile enough; it was combat proven; it was experienced and ready to take on the requirements in Baghdad," he said. "And so they've got the right brigade for that."