CAMP TAJI, IRAQ-He served in Iraq twice before. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions as a squad leader here. He didn't have to come back.
But Sergeant First Class Timothy Nein is back, on his third deployment in Iraq, his fourth overseas this decade. The first was in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2001.
Only the Medal of Honor trumps the DSC among awards for valor in battle. Nein was the first Guardmember to receive the award and only the fourth servicemember during the Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The DSC was an upgrade from the Silver Star Medal that Nein was originally awarded for his actions as a squad leader with the Kentucky National Guard's 617th Military Police Company during a March 20, 2005, ambush.
Nein and the National Guard's Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester - the first woman awarded the Silver Star for direct combat action against an enemy - led a counterattack that saw 27 insurgents killed, seven captured and no deaths in their unit. Two Soldiers were wounded.
Nein still leads in Iraq, where he's now serving with the Kentucky National Guard's 223rd Military Police Company.
<b>FIVE YEARS OF CHANGE</b>
"I probably didn't have to be here this time, but I don't think that I would have missed it," Nein said. "I feel honored to be a part of this."
This time, he is a platoon sergeant providing escorts for the 18th Military Police Brigade's Iraqi Police Transitional Team.
Nein has seen five years of change firsthand. He first deployed here with the initial liberation force in 2003. He was back in 2005.
"I've seen a huge difference from 2005 to where we are now," he said. "I can remember thinking in 2005, looking back at 2003, how much different it was.
"I can't believe we've come as far as we have as far as getting their economy going. The violence is down greatly. It's unbelievable how much different it is. They have come in five years in the democracy that they have what took us 232 years to get to.
"That's what I don't think people see - the great life that we live in the United States. People look at that and think that it's always been that way. It wasn't. Forty, 50 years ago we were still fighting the civil rights movement. We have fought for 232 years to get to where we're at. Yet in five years [Iraqis] have gone from a dictatorship to the ability to vote for who they want."
Nein said the National Guard has played an essential role in Iraq's transformation. One example is his own unit's mission. "We're helping transform the Iraqi police to be a more relevant force and a more professional force," he said. "We're out there every day evaluating their leaders, evaluating their recruits, evaluating their police stations to make sure that they're up to par so that we can hand this mission over to them and they can take control."
From Clark County, Ind., Nein enlisted in the National Guard in 1996. "I wanted to give something back to the people that have given me so much," he said.
He has strong feelings about the Guard. "It's one of the best assets the United States Army has," he said. "It's a relevant and ready force. We have gone in the last five years from a great force to an outstanding force. We can pick up and be anywhere in the world and accomplish a mission just like any other unit in the United States and perform to the equivalent level. I can't say enough about the Guard."
Despite Nein's intense Guard pride, he sees all servicemembers here as a joint team. "I don't see National Guard," he said. "I don't see Reserve Soldiers, and I don't see active-duty Soldiers, because we're all doing the same mission and we're keeping up the great professionalism ... meeting every bit of the same standards across the board."
But Nein said the National Guard is unique because the Citizen-Soldier or -Airman who balances family, a civilian career and the Guard is unique.
"We've got Soldiers that just aren't Soldiers - this isn't all they've ever done," Nein said.
"We might have guys that have been in the National Guard for 20 years and have three and four deployments and have a lot of world experience, but they also have other careers that they're able to expand on in the Guard."
Nein sees the benefit of those civilian-acquired skills in his own unit. "I've got guys that are in law enforcement. I've got welders. I've got college students."
Nein's unit includes some stop-loss Soldiers. "They didn't complain one bit," he said.
"They said, 'This is my job, and this is what I'm going to go do.' And that's the heart of a U.S. Soldier, and that's the heart of the United States citizen."
When Nein looks at his own unit, he sees a microcosm of the Guard, a mosaic built from different life experiences and shared Soldier skills that gives the unit an ability to adapt to change.
"I see the best of the best," he said. "I see the typical U.S. citizen who stands up to come here and leaves - just like with an active duty Soldier - their homeland to come and make a better place in the world without a complaint."
Before this latest deployment, Nein took a leave of absence from the paper products company where he's worked two decades to go full time with the Guard as a training NCO.
Here on the ground, after-action reviews are a key part of how Nein leads, seeking ways for himself and his Soldiers to improve.
"Even if it's just a standard escort mission that we do a thousand times while we're here, every day's going to be different, and every day we've got to try and make it better, and that's how I look at every mission," he said.
Out on escort missions, Nein thinks like his enemy. "I'm looking for how, if I was a bad guy, how I would kill me, the entire time out there," he said. "I'm looking for where I would put an IED (improvised explosive device); where I would set up an ambush; how I would do it if I was the bad guy."
He passes that mentality along to his Soldiers as they scan for threats. "Don't look at the actual object," he tells them, referring to IED placement. "Look past it. Look at how you would set it up in the area - and you'll see it way before you would ever if you were just looking for an inanimate object."
He hopes other Soldiers will look at the day his unit was ambushed for lessons. "What did we do right'" he said. "Why were we able to survive something that we shouldn't have been able to survive'
"I didn't make up any of the tactics that we used. We took everything that the Army taught and that Soldiers before me had used and we developed it and we implemented it from Day 1. Anytime that a TTP (technique, tactic and procedure) could have been better, we worked on it.
"It's not what I did that made the day go right. It's what the people before me did, that taught me and mentored me on battle tactics and TTPs and just doing the right thing each and every day. Because if you do that - the right training, the right leadership and the right equipment - there's nothing that we can't accomplish."
Nein has been married for 19 years. The couple has two children.
"If it wasn't for a good support channel, as far as my family being able to support me to allow me to go do these things, then I wouldn't be able to do it," Nein said. "My ability to do my job and not worry about what's going on at home is because I have a great family and a great wife."
March 20, 2005, might have ended differently for Nein and his squad, who were outnumbered five to one. Every day he serves here, Nein still faces risk.
"This is my job," he said. "This is what I chose to do, and it's what I'll continue to strive to do. I love what I do."
- Staff Sergeant Jon Soucy of the National Guard Bureau contributed.