April 26, 2010 - As the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 724th Engineer Battalion deployed to Iraq last week, the significance of the unit's second deployment in seven years is not lost on many of those battalion Soldiers who are going again.
One of those Soldiers is Scott Genz, who was a senior platoon sergeant when the 724th deployed in 2003 to support what was then known as Operation Iraqi Freedom I. He was promoted to first sergeant during that deployment. He is deployed with the battalion again, this time as its command sergeant major.
One of the differences Genz has noticed right off the bat is that when the unit received its alert notice for the first deployment on Valentine's Day, 2003, there was a lot of talk about going to war.
"We actually moved out from our armories four days before the ground war started," Genz said. "Everyone knew it was days away." He added the battalion had about three weeks from the time they received their alert to the time they shipped for the mobilization station, which made things like getting personal affairs in order tough - but there also wasn't a lot of time to dwell on it.
"Now, some units find out six months or a year in advance and I think that can be tougher on a family," Genz said. "Family members know they have that much time before they lose you to a deployment," he said. "That has to be stressful."
The battalion's mission in Iraq in 2003 ended up a very productive one, with 724th personnel doing missions ranging from convoy security on main supply routes to training members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, clearing supply routes of improvised explosive devices, and building and improving the base camps where they stayed. That's just some of what they did.
Uncertainty about the duration of the war in Iraq translated into uncertainties about the scope of the 724th's mission in 2003. The battalion found out much sooner this time around what the bulk of its mission will be - route clearance missions of roads regularly used by Coalition forces. In accordance with conditions of the gradual U.S. pullout from Iraq by the middle of next year, clearance missions in the cities and towns will be left up to the Iraqis.
"That part of it's nice because we know now what we think the mission will be," Genz said. "Of course, those of us who have been in the military long enough know that can change, but at least we have some guidance on what we think we might be doing."
As far as the actual mobilization, Genz said in 2003 a lot of time was spent loading battalion equipment. A good chunk of it went with the 724th since the equipment wasn't in country for the unit to fall in on, which is the case now.
That, Genz said, has been a big help in battalion readiness.
"We've gotten a lot more time to train," he said. "When it came to the live fire exercises and the collective training and the fact we were actually using route clearance equipment ... the stuff we're going to be using over there and we know that's what our main mission is supposed to be will make us better prepared."
The technology differences between when the 724th deployed in 2003 compared to now, Genz said, are like night and day.
For example, though some up-armored Humvees were starting to show up for use in convoy escort duty during the first deployment, Genz recalled what his Soldiers started out with.
"We had Humvees with the doors off and the weapons hanging out," he said. "Now, we're in MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles for route clearance that are actually made to take a blast."
Genz also pointed out the new body armor the Soldiers will be wearing, known as the IOTV, or Individual Operational Tactical Vest. "It's 10 times more comfortable than what we have now," he said.
One other aspect that makes this deployment different for the 724th is having two other Army National Guard units, the 228th Engineer Company from Pennsylvania and the 1013th Sapper Company from Puerto Rico, attached to the battalion for the deployment. In addition, the battalion will also take on an active-duty Army unit, the 617th Engineer Company, based at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
Genz said while having the Puerto Ricans go with the 724th has posed some challenges, overall everyone is working well together.
"A lot of it is just getting to know each other," he said. "The language can be a barrier at times, but everyone continues to work on that."
Members of the 724th Engineer Battalion remember the fact they were among the first Soldiers in Iraq in 2003 after the war started and now will be among the last coming out as U.S. involvement is scheduled to end there by the end of 2011.
There is one other "beginning," though, that Genz and the rest of the Soldiers of the 724th will be a part of. On Sept. 1, Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Operation New Dawn. The significance of that is definitely not lost on Genz.
"Those kids in Iraq when we were there [in 2003] that were teenagers and saw Americans for the first time are now adults in the Iraqi army," he said. "I believe when we were helping them with schools and doing civil affairs and humanitarian missions, and by us just being over there and working with them seeing what we're trying to do is how things have changed."
Genz admits to having a personal interest in seeing the changes in the country and seeing some of the people. "It would be kind of cool to go back to one village I would go through on a regular basis on the first deployment and see how life has changed over the last six or seven years," he said.