By Sgt. Daniel J. Nichols, 2nd BCT PAO, 1st Armd. Div., MND-BMay 9, 2009
'The surge' of five additional brigades into Iraq was announced in January 2007, with an additional requirement of increasing the length of deployments from 12 to 15 months. Since then, Coalition forces, Iraqi Security forces, and local citizens have seen the beneficial after-effects of the surge, with many areas of Iraq now rebuilding and communities becoming safe to live and work in once again.
Today, deployment lengths have returned to the original standard of 12 months. For some units however, there is still the need to go above and beyond the standard for the sake of accomplishing the mission; without short-changing their ISF counter-parts, the Soldiers coming to relieve their unit, and themselves.
The 2nd 'Iron' Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Multi-National Division-Baghdad, is one of those units. The brigade is one of the last brigades, if not the last, in Iraq to be deployed past 12 months.
In April, 2008, the Iron Brigade deployed from their home station in Baumholder Germany, to Kuwait, and prepared for their entry into Iraq. This would be the brigade's third deployment to Iraq since March 2003, totaling 42 months.
A few weeks later, in the beginning of May 2008, they had moved to Forward Operating Base Hammer, located just outside the southeastern edge of Baghdad, and assumed the Mada'in area from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. The Iron Brigade was the only brigade combat team to replace a 'surge' brigade.
"This is my third deployment to Iraq, but this deployment was more organized than those," said Staff Sgt. Victor Perez, of Long Island, N.Y., training room non-commissioned officer in charge, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd BCT, 1st Armd. Div. "I guess the first few deployments were more of a learning experience and now we've gotten more organized."
Six months into the deployment, Iron Brigade Soldiers began relocating their battalions from FOB Hammer to Camp Striker on the Victory Base Complex and expanding their area of responsibility.
On November 14, 2008, the brigade conducted a transfer of authority with the 3rd Brigade, 101st Air Assault Div. Eight days later the brigade transferred to MND-B and the operations environment expanded to encompass the Mada'in and Mahmudiyah areas, also known as Baghdad's "Southern Belts." By the end of November the brigade had forces east and west of the Tigris River.
Established in their new location they continued their tireless efforts, working throughout the entire southern half of Baghdad. With the addition of two new battalions, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment, 1st Infantry Division and 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, their area of responsibility expanded with the addition of the Rashid district of Baghdad.
Throughout the southern half of Baghdad, the Soldiers of 2nd BCT performed combined security patrols with their ISF counterparts from the 2nd National Police Division, 9th Iraqi Army Division, and 17th IA Div. They found and disposed of numerous improvised explosive devices, along with discovering caches filled with weapons and homemade explosive making materials. All of this was done in combined cooperation with their ISF counterparts, who were only working harder to increase their capability as an organized force.
"Considering this is my first deployment I can only judge off of what I see now. They're eager to learn. I spent quite a period preparing to train the IA and then I went and conducted training with three different units at their division and battalions, they were really eager to learn and increase their capabilities," said Sgt. Jacqueline Reynolds, HHC, 2nd BCT, 1st Armd. Div., who spent four months training her ISF counter-parts. For other Soldiers who had been deployed in the past however, this kind of cooperation was something very new.
"The mission has changed for the Coalition forces since my last deployment in Iraq", said Sgt. Brian Gordon, of Cleveland Ohio, a track vehicle mechanic with HHC, 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, 2nd BCT, 1st Armd., Div.
"The CF unit operations were independent of IA forces in 2006 to 2007 for the overall mission because of the conflict with al-Qaeda forces in Ramadi and throughout Iraq. The mission during this deployment focused on combined operations with IA units providing more security in Iraq with the drawdown of CF troop levels and operations," said Gordon.
Aside from security operations, the Iron Brigade also worked to improve communities through embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams and military civil affairs efforts to rebuild schools, workplaces, and key small businesses. Even during routine patrols, Soldiers from the Iron Brigade did what they could to improve the communities they protected.
"When we went and talked to them (Iraqi citizens) we would ask them about their sewage, their electricity, how their water was, security around that area, and their general concerns that they may have or how we could improve their lives," said Spc. Dustin Niehuus, a tank driver turned dismounted team leader and machine gunner with Company C, 1st Battalion 35th Armor Regiment. Niehuus spent most of his year in Iraq outside of Sadr City at Joint Security Station Comanche where his platoon went on daily eight hour patrols in the city right outside the gate.
"I think we made a difference in the area. By the time we left it was quiet. There was nothing going on there, and we could definitely see the improvement," said Niehuss.
In typical Iron Brigade fashion, when the calendar had marked 12 months of time spent in Iraq, instead of going home the 2nd BCT moved once again, this time to Forward Operating Base Falcon where they prepared to receive and remain in place for the next two months with their counter parts from the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the North Carolina National Guard.
"There's a lot of anxiety probably, I would say, that's building up in the preparation, and a lot of young Soldiers not knowing what to do when they go back," said Perez. "So everything has been speeding up and there's a lot to do before we get going, prior to the (conclusion) of this mission, but we'll get through it."
Throughout the deployment there had been ups and downs, good times and bad times for these Soldiers deployed to Iraq, including some interesting first time events.
"Drinking beer on Super Bowl day, first time ever," said Sgt. Jamal Davis, a native of Tuskegee, Ala., a Task Force liaison for 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery. "This is my first time to be able to drink during a deployment, the past two deployments we weren't able to do that, but even if it was just for one day I was able to have two beers," he said with a smile.
"This is my third deployment, the first two all I did was patrol and go out into the operational environment and door kicking and all that," said Davis. "But this time, going from that to working in the tactical operations center, it's kind of like culture shock for a guy who's never done it before. But working with the staff, actually being able to brief the brigade commander on what my task force is doing is another good thing that I'll always remember."
Although some times were good, there was always the other side of the coin, and by far the hardest for the whole brigade was when a Soldier was killed in action.
"The biggest memory, and it's not a good one, is when we lost a gunner (Cpl. Tony Gonzales) on an MRAP I was on to an EFP (explosively formed projectile)," said Niehuus. "He was a good friend. He was in our platoon. He was a good guy all-around who would help you out when he could," said Niehuus somberly. However, Niehuus and his fellow Soldiers were able to make it through even the dark times of the deployment through sticking together, and staying strong as a team.
"It was hard, but we had great leadership who helped us channel our anger and our fear, so to say, in a positive way, and give us extra motivation to get out there and find the guys who were planting those things and get them off the streets," said Niehuus.
Through good times, and bad, the Soldiers of the Iron Brigade did their best and remained vigilant throughout their deployment, doing what they could to stay Army strong.
"I think the only thing I could say is that it's all what you make of it over here," said Niehuus. "If you're thinking it's horrible then you're going to be horrible and miserable, but if you have a chain-of-command that really cares like ours did, and that helps you out and makes things better for you when they can, [it helps a lot] but it's all what you make of it."
After more than a year of around the clock operations, the closeness of home and the comforts it brings is something that Iron Brigade Soldiers can almost taste.
"I'll be honest, the number one thing I miss is the weekends," said Davis with a laugh. "Being able to take two days off and just have it down and relax. Yeah, we get four hours off on Sunday, but we work seven days a week, so just being able to have time to relax and chill is what I miss the most," said Davis.
With leave forms beginning to pile up on the desks of company commanders everywhere, the Soldiers whose minds have been mission-focused for over a year, are now beginning to think of home more than ever.
"I'm looking forward to spending time with my wife, and my daughter, she was born while I was out here so it'll be good to get to know her," said Niehuss. "Just relaxing and taking it easy and I'd like to do some travelling around Europe."