Deploying With the Heart Of A Community
December 11, 2009
- "You're well-trained and you know your job and a tough job it is. Your job is to protect Soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines."
- "You're going to accomplish the mission and you are going to come back home in a year."
- We are at a critical point in Iraq with the transition to Iraqi leadership. There are still a lot of bad guys over there."
- "This is what we live to do - to serve our nation and our state."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.-- Leah Shallbetter is bracing herself for another year of separation from her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Rob Shallbetter of the Alabama National Guard's 441st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion.
The Toney, Ala., resident can tell the story of her husband's three deployments based on the ages of the couple's children - 7-year-old Bette was three weeks old when her father deployed to Afghanistan, 5-year-old Josie was three months old when her father deployed to Iraq and, for his upcoming deployment, the family's youngest member, John Robert, is 2 1/2 years old.
"I'm nervous about this deployment being a year," Shallbetter said. "But I have a strong faith in the Lord and that keeps me at peace. It's really harder for him because he will be away from the kids for so long."
The Shallbetters were among several families and a crowd of 500 who attended the deployment ceremony for the 45 Soldiers of the 441st on Dec. 2 at the Jaycees Building in John Hunt Park. The Soldiers left Dec. 3 for additional training and preparation at Camp Shelby, Miss., before deploying to Baghdad, where they will use their training and "the best equipment money can buy" to protect and defend U.S. troops against explosive ordnance and other enemy attacks, said their commander, Lt. Col. Roger Yearwood.
"I want to reassure you your Soldiers are in good hands," Yearwood told his Soldiers' families. "They are well-trained and well-equipped. My job is to bring them all home safe to you."
Yearwood, who was born on the same 40 acres he now lives on in the Cullman, Ala., area, has served in the active Army and the National Guard for 36 years. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2006. He was scheduled to retire about six months ago, but asked for an extension so that he could lead the 441st in Iraq.
"I love being a battalion commander," he said. "Soldiers need a qualified commander."
The 441st will jointly deploy with the 1st Armored Division. It will support Task Force Troy, the counter improvised explosive device mission in Iraq, and will help train at the Iraqi Army Bomb Disposal School, established in 2004.
The deployment to Iraq is a move "back to the fight for many of you," pointed out Maj. Gen. Abner Blaylock, adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard, referring to the unit's deployment in 2006 to Afghanistan.
"You're well-trained and you know your job and a tough job it is. Your job is to protect Soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines in a tough environment. We are at a critical point in Iraq with the transition to Iraqi leadership. There are still a lot of bad guys over there who don't want that to happen," Blaylock said.
"It's a tough time. But you're going to do a great job. You're going to accomplish the mission and you are going to come back home in a year."
The National Guard officers who spoke at the ceremony stressed to the Soldiers that the job of protecting U.S. troops against explosive ordnance is a dangerous one.
"It will frustrate you. It will challenge you," said Col. Jose Atencio, who commanded the 441st during its deployment to Afghanistan. "You have to be fluid as we drawdown troops. But even with a drawdown, you're mission doesn't end in protecting the Soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors.
"You're the experts who are going to do the mission. I'm looking for great things from you. This is what we live to do - to serve our nation and our state."
The leadership in attendance at the ceremony, including Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and several local volunteers, urged the families of the 441st to reach out for assistance when it is needed, and to participate in programs planned by the unit's family readiness group coordinator, Renee Knight.
"We are a community of service," said Battle, who proclaimed Dec. 2 as the 441st Ordnance Battalion Day. "We will take care of your families. Our hearts are with you. Our prayers are with you. Our pride is with you."
Much of the assistance the families will need will be provided with the help of Knight, who is also working on family events to bring the group together.
"The first thing I want to do is bring the kids together at the Space & Rocket Center just to give them the chance to be around other kids who are going through what they are going through," she said.
Knight is the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Clifton Knight of the 441st. She is the mother of National Guard Spc. Randle Smith, who is also deployed.
"I got into doing things for the families when my son deployed. Now, I really like to do things that bring the families together," she said.
While Knight takes care of the unit's families, Yearwood said he plans on relying on MWR activities at Camp Victory, Iraq, and on his barbecue smoker to help keep morale high within his unit.
"I love to cook and I love to cook for my Soldiers," he said. "I am taking my smoker and some Johnny's BBQ Sauce from Cullman so that we can have barbecue in Iraq."
About a third of the Soldiers in the 441st have already served during at least one deployment. For many of the younger Soldiers, the deployment is a chance to test their training as a Soldier.
"I signed up and joined this unit knowing this would happen," Pfc. James Nash said of the deployment. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I'm excited. I'm looking forward to it."
The 23-year-old, who will be leaving his job in security at Bridge Street Town Center, will be charged with providing computer networking services while deployed. He is not worried about the dangers associated with the deployment.
"We've done a lot of good training and I trust everyone going with me. We will watch each other's back," he said.
"We've been preparing for a year, so I am anxious to get started," added Sgt. Alisha Rogers of Hartselle, Ala.
For Lt. Eric Kramer, leaving family - including children ages 8, 6 and six months -- is what makes the deployment difficult.
"This is my second deployment. It's a little bit tougher this time because the children are older and we have the baby. I hope the time goes fast," said Kramer, a Pelham police officer who will be in charge of a command security team in Iraq.
"As a Soldier, I see this as something I've got to do. If it's not me, it would be someone else. It's what I do and I am good at it."
Capt. Chad Laqua, an assistant principal at Buckhorn High, will be leaving not only his wife, a National Guard major who returned last month from her own deployment to Afghanistan, and two children ages 2 and 6, but also an entire high school of students who recognized his sacrifice during a special Veterans Day program.
"We're trained and we're ready to go. But it's still difficult to leave this community," he said.
The deployment ceremony included the national anthem sung by the Hazel Green High choir, a tearful rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic sung by Alabama National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Donna Johnson, the retiring of the 441st's colors, and prayers for the Soldiers' mission success and safe return. Huntsville's mayor pointed out one Soldier with the 441st who holds an extra special place in the hearts of Huntsville city employees. National Guard Sgt. Michael Nelson is a Huntsville police officer.
The Ladies Auxiliary of the VFW Post 2702 provided refreshments for the event. Other organizations, including the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army and the North Alabama Veterans and Fraternal Organizations Coalition, also provided support.
During the program, Guard adjutant general Blaylock presented the 441st's commander with an Alabama flag.
"I expect you to fly it with pride," he said. "Every time you fly it let it remind you that the citizens of Alabama are behind you, appreciate what you are doing on your mission and understand you are protecting their freedom."