FORT HOOD, Texas -- As the Army National Guard's 35th Infantry Division nears the 100 year anniversary of their founding, perhaps it is only fitting that they spend it in a historic mission overseas.
More than 600 Soldiers of the 35th ID conducted a Mission Rehearsal Exercise here with First Army's Division West May 31 to June 15.
This exercise was the culminating training event of more than a year of preparation for the 35th ID's imminent deployment to the Middle East.
"Practice makes perfect," said Maj. Gen. Victor Braden, commanding general of the 35th ID. "So we train like our lives depend on it; that's what we're doing here. We're also getting a chance to look at how we set up our command posts, and how we'll design those for the [operational] theater we're going into."
The 35th ID will be relieving the 29th Infantry Division, taking command of approximately 10,000 Soldiers in Kuwait, Jordan and the surrounding areas of operation.
"This MRX did a very good job of exercising our division battle staff across all of the functions that we will be executing downrange," said Col. Timothy Bush, the 35th ID's chief of staff. "It pushed us to see the units we will be taking mission command over, and track their capabilities."
The Army Total Force Policy directs the active duty Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard to meet the same readiness standards and be completely interchangeable.
"We have all components working together to assist the training, build readiness, and allow the 35th Infantry Division to see and exercise their own processes," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, commanding general of First Army's Division West. "That's really what Army Total Force Policy was meant to do."
The 35th ID partnered with First Army observer coach/trainers in all of their major exercises since last year.
"All the way through that time… we've had First Army there with us to provide that OC/T support," said Brig. Gen. John Rueger, a deputy commanding general of 35th ID. "This First Army support enables us to get an outside look in, an objective view, of mentoring, teaching and allowing us to get better."
First Army comprises a mix of active duty, Reserve and National Guard Soldiers, all bringing their unique perspectives and experiences to the table. Col. Paul Garcia, commander of First Army's 5th Armored Brigade, based out of Fort Bliss, Texas, emphasized the importance of his team's diversity in preparing Reserve and National Guard units for active roles in overseas missions.
"We live Army Total Force Policy every day in our mission," Garcia said. "Specific to 5th Armored Brigade, there's no way I can function without all the components. We've got Reservists, National Guard [Military Intelligence] formations, as well as active duty. There's no way we can do our mission without the full support of every component."
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Van, the second deputy commanding general of 35th ID, said he appreciates the knowledge and experience First Army officers and noncommissioned officers bring to their partnered exercises.
"It actually helps the overall operational readiness when you have First Army external assets bringing you the experiences of First Army," Van said. "There's validity in First Army because of their relevance in having experienced [deployments] through their professional senior-grade NCOs and officers."
The 35th ID, headquartered in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is composed of Kansas and Missouri Army National Guard elements. However, additional National Guard Soldiers from Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina are accompanying the 35th ID on their mission.
After arriving in the Middle East, the 35th ID will assume a key role in Operation Spartan Shield in Kuwait and with joint training throughout the area. Overall, the focus is primarily on partnering with America's allies in the region.
"This exercise is really helping us see the [theater] environment from a much higher level… and see the bigger picture and how our operations affect our partnered coalition [allies] over there," said Lt. Col. Michelle Hannah, commander of the Kansas Army National Guard's 635th Regional Support Group.
The 635th RSG, headquartered in Topeka, participated in the 35th ID's MRX in a role similar to the one they will have overseas: strategic staff for U.S. Army Central at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Hannah, who works as a dental hygienist in her civilian career, believes National Guard "part-time" Soldiers help improve the Army's interoperability -- the ability of service members from different Army components, military branches, and even different countries, to work together seamlessly toward shared goals.
"As part of the National Guard, we don't wear this uniform every day," Hannah said. "We're required to work with all different kinds of people in and out of uniform every day. So I think we have a way of communicating with people that will allow us to interact with our partners in a way that will help create that interoperability that will forward our strategic initiatives just a little bit better."
Braden said he prefers to think of the three Army components as a unified force rather than separate elements.
"If you look at the holistic view of all three components, it makes for one Army that is very strong," Braden said. "One thing the Army National Guard does bring is their life experiences in the civilian sector."
After months of hand-in-hand training with their First Army peers, even many of the newer Soldiers of the 35th ID felt more confident to tackle their upcoming mission. But the prospect of a nine-month deployment doesn't come without stressors.
"I'm really excited to deploy for the first time, but it's also nerve-wracking, because I've never been away from my family or my kids," said Missouri Army National Guard Spc. Lindsey Mines, a nodal network systems operator/maintainer and mother of two children from Excelsior Springs, Missouri.
The biggest challenge for deploying reserve-component units is building a team, said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Dillingham, the command sergeant major of Division West.
"You're uprooting people from their family and putting them together with people they only see 39 days a year," Dillingham said. "And some of those are not from that unit, and they mobilized from different locations."
As an elementary school principal with decades of experience in administration and education, the 35th ID's command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Newton, is enjoying what might be his last opportunity to lead and take care of Soldiers before he retires from the Army.
"Being a command sergeant major… one of the luxuries I get is being able to interact with our Soldiers," Newton said. "Getting to hear life experiences has been a treat for me. That's probably the thing I'll miss the most in being a Soldier and being around other Soldiers."
As the final preparations for deployment are made, even some of the most junior Soldiers in the 35th ID feel confident in their team's ability to meet the challenges ahead.
"I feel we're coming together great," said Missouri Army National Guard Spc. Zachary Alder, a 35th ID multi-channel transmission systems operator/maintainer from St. Joseph, Missouri. "We're definitely learning each other's strengths and weaknesses. We're taking our weaknesses and trying to make those stronger points. We're really gelling well."
Braden believes that the 35th ID mission will have a meaningful impact on the for both American interests, and our partners in the Middle East.
"Each generation has its calling," Braden said. "For that World War I generation, it was the calling of Europe. For World War II, it was the calling of Europe and the Pacific. For my generation, and I think for this next generation, the calling is in Southwest Asia. Our mission there matters. It matters to our nation, and it matters to the security and stability of that region."