By Staff Sgt. Thomas DuvalNovember 15, 2016
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo-- The belief that deployments can "change" a Soldier have been a topic for experts to argue for many years. Much like marriage, birth or retirement, a deployment can change many aspects of a Soldiers' life; posing the question, are all changes bad?
It's a question which is posed to less than 1% of Americans and one that Soldiers, deployed to Kosovo, recently answered.
When the Soldiers from the Pennsylvania National Guard's 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division return home from their nine-month deployment, later this year, the formation of Soldiers returning to their friends, families and their community won't look quite the same as when they departed.
The experiences over the last nine months working with NATO and U.S. Army Europe helped shape the junior and senior leaders of the Iron Brigade. While names and faces will be familiar, Col. Ros L. Gammon IV, commander of the 2nd IBCT, 28ID, said the Citizen-Soldiers will return to Pennsylvania stronger because of the lessons they learned in Kosovo.
"I have said it since day one, when we first mobilized, my goal is to bring back better, Soldiers, fathers, husbands, daughters and mothers," Gammon said. "I wanted us to be better people and be better as an organization, and to improve everyday along the way. That was my goal and we did rather well with it."
The journey to become a better organization started about a year ago when the 2nd IBCT, 28th ID, began their annual training in Pennsylvania.
"The deployment manning document for this operation matches pretty close to what a brigade headquarters looks like, but not exactly," Gammon said. "We had to build this team and work some of our operations processes, so we did that at our AT period. We really started to figure out how to execute the operations process once we completed all of our individual task training and then we became smart on Kosovo."
From there the "Iron Brigade" moved to Fort Bliss, Texas where they continued to learn about the mission in Kosovo. They also shifted their focus from individual tasks to collective tasks focused on building the team.
"More is better when getting ready for deployment, so we just focused on repetition, over and over again," Gammon said. "We really got after it hard and made it happen."
"Building the team" may sound like an easy task on paper but Gammon and his team had to do what very few organizations have done in the past. Gammon was charged with bringing together multiple active duty and National Guard units together from several parts of the world to accomplish a singular mission.
As the brigade headquarters, 2IBCT, 28th ID was set to lead an active-duty infantry unit out of Fort Carson, Colorado, Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a postal unit out of Fort Lewis, Washington, a finance team from Vicenza, Italy, aviation units from Arizona, as well as a medical and public affairs unit out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Working with such a tall order, Gammon knew he had to find the right people for the job.
"How do I find the right person for the right job, when I really don't know what the job entails," Gammon questioned. "You have to take the person's personality, their skill set and you have to match them for the duty."
As Gammon began to compare the mission requirements with the units and Soldiers, personalities and skill sets quickly started to fall into place as the individual teams met for their mission rehearsal exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.
While at JMRC, the units synchronized their efforts and transformed multiple formations into one team with one mission.
"The team building was and has been tremendous," Gammon said. "We have taught our active duty and our Guard Soldiers that there is no difference, the name tape says U.S. Army."
As the newly formed Kosovo Force 21 rotation departed Germany for Kosovo, Gammon never lost sight of his initial goal of building better people and as the mission became clearer, so did his plan for how to accomplish his intent.
To achieve this goal, Gammon decided to give his team opportunities to grow as leaders in hopes that it would help in other aspects of their personal lives.
"We build those better fathers, husbands, wives and mothers by making them feel confident in what they do here and by allowing them to experience success," Gammon added. "We wanted to make specialists be better specialists and prepare them to become noncommissioned officers, to put Soldiers in positions to be challenged and let them learn from mistakes and rise to success."
His plan and challenge to his Soldiers appears to have worked.
"Every Soldier I have worked with directly on a day to day basis is better," Gammon said. "These Soldiers are more confident they have no fear. The aspects of this mission allowed them to grow and they will take that back with them. They will be more confident as fathers, as sons and daughters."
As the unit prepares to hand over the reins to the incoming unit and return home, Gammon said the success of the KFOR 21 rotation speaks for itself.
Throughout the nine-month deployment the aviation unit flew over 2,200 flight hours, supporting real-world and scenario based operations.
The EOD team made Kosovo safer for the locals by uncovering and properly disposing of nearly 200 pieces of unexploded ordnance.
Security along the boundary lines also became more secure and partnerships more apparent, Gammon said the Multinational Battle Group-East conducted more than 100 synchronized administrative boundary line (ABL) patrols alongside the Serbian Armed Forces and Kosovo Border Police.
"Originally, we had a presence, which is good, but we didn't interact with the people," Gammon added. "With the ABL, we now have the ability to build on our capacity with the Kosovo Border Police. We understand how these different areas of the ABL work and we set the way ahead for KFOR 22 to take this to the next level."
The KFOR 21 Soldiers also left a lasting impression and set the way ahead for junior and senior leaders with the Kosovo Security Force.
Through a number of classes and field training exercises, Iron Soldiers helped develop KSF leaders attending the KSF Training and Doctrine Command's Advanced and Senior Leader Course.
When the units weren't partnering with the government institutions, they were working closely with the Kosovo youth to improve skills like reading, writing and speaking in English. Throughout the rotation the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, conducted about 10 separate events with the teachers and students at the A&A language center.
According to Gammon, the partnership rendered a lasting bond with the local community.
"The Kosovar people here are tremendous," said Gammon. "They are all about our presence and they appreciate it. I think that really keeps the peace here and keeps that stability in place. It shows the people of Kosovo we are here and we aren't going anywhere."
Although much of their time was spent outside of the camp gates working with the local Kosovars and ensuring a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement, the Soldiers also spent a great deal of time bettering themselves.
Together, with the help of their multinational partners, more than 400 foreign badges were earned. The awards included the German Armed Forces Proficiency badge, the Schützenschnur badge and the Edelweiss badge.
Keeping in line with Gammon's theme of developing strong leaders, more than 100 Soldiers were awarded with the opportunity to complete the U.S. Army's Basic Leaders Course. Approximately 92 Soldiers successfully completed the training, impressing senior leaders of all ranks.
"This is a testament to the kind of dedication and professionalism that our Soldiers possess," said 1st Sgt. Theron Robbins, senior enlisted advisor for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd IBCT, 28th ID. "They didn't work to simply complete, but to learn, grow and improve. As a leader I am proud of what they have accomplished and as my career comes to an end, I am confident that these Soldiers will continue to carry on the fine traditions of the 28 Infantry Division and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard."
Although many leaders like Gammon and Robbins would like to take responsibility for the success of KFOR 21, and the Soldiers who supported the mission, they both agree the credit goes to the people of Kosovo and the progress they have made over the years.
"Because of the permissive environment and the growth that Kosovo has made over the years we are not threatened when we were out in the area, so we can do other things," Gammon said. "We were able to train and get better, and we owe that to them."
The Soldiers have already packed their bags and prepared for the journey home but will have a few more stops before they are reunited with their families.
The Iron Soldiers will return to Fort Bliss, Texas for reintegration training and will look to be reunited with loved ones in time for the Christmas holiday.
As for his final message, Gammon said he thanks every Soldier, family member and Kosovar who made the mission a success.