By Kari Hawkins, Redstone RocketJune 13, 2008
He got to see his daughter Marie graduate from high school with an advanced diploma. He spent time with his wife vacationing in Tunica, Miss. He enjoyed an afternoon cookout with friends and some good times with his children.
And, oh yes, he got in a few winning softball games with his buddies in the Redstone league.
Alabama Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Joe Cox - well-known among fellow Soldiers for his unswerving dedication to the Guard, for his athletic skills on the ball field and for his easy, fun-loving nature -- was home on leave recently from a one-year deployment in Kuwait. He returned to his duties in the Middle East on June 7.
Cox along with three other Soldiers from the 279th Signal in Huntsville - Sgt. Nasikhalim Yishrael, Cpl. Anthony Freeman and Spc. Travis Riffle -- volunteered to join their fellow 279th Soldier - Spc. Gregory Bearden - on a deployment to support the 3rd Army in Kuwait. Their deployment began Oct. 26, 2007, and will end Sept. 13 when the group is scheduled to return to Fort Benning, Ga.
"All these guys worked directly for me in the unit," said Cox, who served in a full-time Guard position as the 279th's readiness NCO and supervisor of information management before his deployment.
"Spc. Bearden was requested to go on this deployment. But the rest of us volunteered. We put this team together to go with Spc. Bearden because we're family and we hated to see one of our own go alone."
Guard Soldiers are known for their close camaraderie within their units. Many have reported for weekend duty with the same Soldiers for years. It was that brotherly connection through the military that convinced Cox and the other three Soldiers to join Bearden in Kuwait.
"We thought, if nothing else, we could all be together and serve as a buffer for anything bad that happened while there," Cox said. "We knew each other and knew we could rely on each other if we needed someone to talk to or just be there for each other."
The Soldiers also felt it was time to pay their dues, so to speak.
"For all of us, this was a first-time deployment," he said. "We needed to go and do it. I think all of us felt an obligation. I know I did because my wife (Guard Sgt. Dana Cox) has deployed, my oldest daughter (Guard Spc. Rachelle Lang) just returned from a deployment in Iraq with the 1103rd out of Dothan and my son-in-law (Guard Spc. Ricky Lang) had deployed with the 128th.
"I had volunteered two times to deploy, but my unit wouldn't release me. This time, since the 279th is disbanding, I was allowed to go."
Cox and his fellow Soldiers also knew it would be a good deployment that would allow them to put their training to work, experience a different part of the world and better position themselves for future promotions within the Guard.
"We went to Kuwait to support Lt. Gen. James Lovelace as his communications team," Cox said. "We're working for some great people."
The Soldiers, who are stationed at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, are assigned to Information Management Communications. Freeman and Yishrael work primarily for the Multinational Task Force, providing computer support to U.S. troops as well as British, Australian and Polish troops.
Cox, Riffle and Bearden work with Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jayson Lowery of the 3rd Army to provide computer, telephone, video and other communications support to Lovelace, a three-star general commanding the U.S. Army Central and Coalition Forces Land Component Command (3rd Army). The command's area of responsibility is large and complex, focused primarily on the Middle East and stretching from the Central Asian States to the Horn of Africa. It includes about 6.5 million square miles, 27 countries and more than 650 million people speaking 12 major languages and representing seven major religions.
And as Lovelace travels the Middle East, so too does Cox, Riffle, Bearden and Lowery.
"I've been to Oman, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Afghanistan twice, Iraq and Pakistan twice," Cox said. "We travel with communications gear. We carry two laptops, one that's non-secure and the other that's secure. We have a secure telephone and a voice over secure Internet phone. We have three means of secure communication and one means of non-secure communication."
The Soldiers work in a tag-team system when Lovelace is traveling. Two men will fly ahead of the general and set up his communication system at the destination. They will support the communication system while Lovelace is operating from that destination and then they will remain at the destination after Lovelace leaves to take down the communication system. In the meantime, the other two-man team will fly ahead of Lovelace's second destination to set up and support a second communications system. Such an arrangement can continue with the two teams swapping out destinations as Lovelace travels throughout the Middle East.
"We are always there a day before and a day after to set up and support communications," Cox said. "General Lovelace is one of the major decision makers in the area of responsibility; in Iraq, Afghanistan and the entire Middle East. He's making major decisions on major events going on there. He has to have constant communication contact at all his destinations. We're enabling the man who makes decisions to communicate."
Except when traveling to Afghanistan or Iraq, the teams travel on commercial airplanes, and they travel unarmed and in civilian clothes.
"We aren't in any danger of getting mortared," Cox said. "We do stand out. And, obviously, we could be a target at some point. So, we have to just stay aware of our surroundings."
At each destination, a team will set up an office with communications for Lovelace in a hotel room with the adjoining hotel room used for their sleeping quarters and to store the "brains" of the communication system. The teams travel with lots of extra communication supplies, including a bag full of electrical adaptors.
"It's busy and hectic," Cox said. "There are long days and no sleep. If the computer goes down, we have to work until we get it back up again. There have been some all-nighters."
When they do travel to Afghanistan and Iraq, they fly "straight onto a military base. We never get in the populace. We are never traveling the roads like true combat Soldiers are," he said.
When Lovelace isn't traveling, the Soldiers provide additional computer support at Camp Arifjan.
"The duty is pretty easy there," Cox said. "Sometimes I feel bad about that. Sometimes I think that my combat skills would be better used further up the front helping Soldiers. But this is where the Army sent me.
"We're doing what we've been asked to do and we're doing it well and we're proud of our job."
On his travels, Cox has seen the pyramids in Egypt, and has shopped in the open air markets of Oman, Jordan and Egypt.
Besides the security and cultural issues of being stationed in a foreign country, Cox said it is most difficult to deal with the nearly everyday sandstorms of Kuwait.
"Every day there is dust and you're breathing it in every day," he said. "The sand is so fine. I had sores in my nose and my sinuses have been a problem until I got home on May 22. I realize how blessed we are to live in this country."
While in Kuwait, Cox and his fellow Soldiers were stationed for a while with the 167th of Cullman, charged with protecting supply trucks traveling in and out of Iraq.
"We played a softball game against them," said Cox, who played left field and pitcher, and who was the coach for the Army Central Command team.
"I also umpired for them. They had one of the best records before they left (to return home). It is so dangerous to play softball there because of the sand and rocks. A ball can hit a rock and go lots of different ways. And a lot of times it's hard to see the ball."
Morale Welfare and Recreation coordinates several activities at Camp Arifjan, including fun runs, and basketball, softball and horseshoe tournaments.
While away from home, Cox's family has had to cope without the family's main cook. While oldest daughter Lang no longer lives at home, daughter Marie Billups and her husband live at home while they prepare for their advanced individual training as National Guard military police officers. Two sons - 16-year-old Steven and 13-year-old Scott - also have military aspirations. Steven wants to be a mechanic in the National Guard while Scott plans to be a Marine.
When he returns, Cox, 45, will probably be assigned to the 115th in Decatur. He is weighing his options concerning retirement.
"I'm looking forward to getting back home," Cox said. "I miss the kids. I miss the family. I miss Dana, obviously. The hardest part of the deployment is the separation.
"The bottom line is I'm away from my family. I'm missing a year out of my kids' and my wife's life, and that's hard."