Montana Guardsmen deploy to Iraq
By TIM TRAINOR
The Montana Standard
FORT SILL, Okla. - In a dry, hot field in southwestern Oklahoma, nearly 1,500 soldiers stand in formation. In about a week, all will have been deployed to Iraq for 10 to 12 months.
Maj. Gen. Mark Graham's voice crackles over the public address system - "when the dust settles on our footprint in the desert."
'Being the brave'
He gives a speech meant to inspire confidence in their training and remind them of the storied history of the U.S. military.
"This is the land of the free because of the brave. Thank you for being the brave," he said.
The soldiers are still and silent in the sun. Among them are 63 members of the Montana National Guard. Task Force Raven of the 189th General Aviation Support Battalion is the third Montana Guard unit to head overseas this year.
The ceremony, held Thursday, marked their assimilation into the Army before they head to Iraq this month. It was Fort Sill's largest deployment this year.
The Montanans join more than 1,000 other National Guard soldiers to form the 28th Combat Aviation Battalion.
That group has been named Task Force Keystone as most of the soldiers are from Pennsylvania. But there are large contingents from Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey and North Carolina as well.
The battalion will primarily fly combat aviation missions, including helicopter attacks, throughout central and southern Iraq. It is a self-sufficient company, made up of mechanics, pilots and dozens of other specialists.
Leaving family, job
The soldiers at Fort Sill all expressed a similar desire: to just get on with it.
"We're ready, absolutely. Ready to go," said Spc. Adam McKinlay of Helena.
"We've been training, and we're as prepared as can be."
Staff Sgt. Rey Santos has served two tours in Iraq, the last from 2004 to 2005. He's antsy to go, but will fly home on a three-day leave before deployment.
His daughter purchased the ticket for him. He leaves a wife, four kids, a job and a new grandchild in Great Falls.
"It's hardest on my wife," he said. "Now she's there taking care of the kids by herself."
Santos, 44, said he plays "the daddy" around the younger enlistees, giving them advice on what to expect in Iraq and how to stay safe.
He said he's interested to see what has changed in Iraq in the four years he has been home.
"The mission is the same," he said. "But there will be differences."
He expects the facilities to have improved, as well as the infrastructure and the Iraqi military.
For security reasons, where the battalion will be based will not be released.
"We know what is expected of us," Santos said. "It's the same standard."
Staff Sgt. Jason Reynolds, of Helena, is not only a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but he served a year in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm.
He was an active-duty infantryman in the Army then, who played Game Boy and listened on a Walkman during downtime on the base.
"That's how you can see how much has changed since then," he said.
In 2003, in Iraq, he bided time listening to CDs. "Now its iPods and MP3s," he said.
But it's not just the technology that has changed. Reynolds said this final training stint at Fort Sill was tougher and more stringent than his last.
Four years ago, they were given time to wander into town and have fun.
"This time they had us locked down," he said. "They want to get us used to living on base. Theater immersion they call it."
For the past two months, they have been training in an Oklahoma set up to look like Iraq.
Chief Warrant Officer Scott Murray of Helena, a pilot, has been flying into airports named Mosul, Baghdad and Samarra, even though he has barely crossed the state line.
"We try to make our training as close as possible to how it's going to be over there," he said.
Murray served in Iraq in 2005 and has been a Guardsman since 2001. He enlisted solely for this opportunity.
"I wanted to fly helicopter," he said. "This is what we've be training for. And we try to be as realistic as can be, but we can't wait to get at it."
Come back healthy
Spc. Erica Nyquist, 23, grew up in Butte. She was attending classes at the University of Montana last year when she received word that she her unit was being deployed. She plans to keep up with her schooling with some at-your-own-pace online courses.
Nyquist fixes electronic equipment, often in helicopters, she said.
"I'm restless. Just like everybody else, I'm anxious to get over there," Nyquist said.
Although she has never been to Iraq, she completed missions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and on the Southwest Border Control.
She said her friends and family are supportive of her mission and are behind her "more than 100 percent."
She'll miss Montana, she said. She'll miss the mountains and she'll miss her family and friends.
As for her time in Iraq, she has only one goal.
"I just want to do my job to the best of my ability. I want to come back healthy and help others around me do the same."