By Scott Nicholson
The local National Guard unit is shipping out for active duty again, and soldiers spent part of last week preparing at the National Guard Armory in Boone.
Termed the “soldier readiness process,” it allows soldiers to gather, be fitted for equipment, and clear up other last-minute details before undergoing training. The 1451st N.C. Transportation Unit, which had already served about a year’s active duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, was remobilized for a second tour, though Public Affairs Specialist Robert Jordan stressed that all those who were making repeat trips for active combat missions were all volunteers for the duty.
Jordan said the actual number of troops who would be deployed was classified information, though there are about 170 in the unit drawn from Watauga, Burke and McDowell counties. Jordan said about 40 of the activated troops were volunteers who had served in the previous tour. In that tour, the 1451st had been attached to the 1450th out of Ashe County.
The company was involved in more than 30 combat missions with no fatalities, and the soldiers undergoing inspection in Boone were in good spirits and expressing confidence in the service that lay ahead.
Brice Vanderberg, a Boone resident, had transferred from his unit in Montana three years ago when he enrolled at Appalachian State University. He’s studying Physical Education with a biology concentration and also volunteers as a wrestling coach for middle school students.
He said he’s followed the news and politics of the war, but feels comfortable with the situation. “It’s always good to know what you’re getting into,” he said, adding that he’d talked with some of the company’s veterans of the previous action. “It helps out quite a bit knowing they were there and it will basically be the same situation.”
Though he had to withdraw from classes for his tour of duty, he said Appalachian State University has done a good job of working with its soldier-students to make the process easier.
One group of Boone friends who were fellow students at Watauga High School are going on their first tour together. PFC’s Gary Long, Michael Coffey, John Bowen, Blake Moody and Anthony Rhymer knew each other and had some of the same classes, and encouraged each other to enlist even though they knew they might be facing active combat duty. Moody joined first, and went through basic training and advanced individual training, then told his friends about his experiences. Moody later convinced his stepbrother, Coffey, to enlist. They all eventually signed up and found themselves deployed together.
For Rhymer, it was a continuation of family tradition in military service. He is interested in studying science in college, so he sought specialization in chemical warfare defense and the use of gas masks. He said military service would help him attend college later, though he doesn’t dwell on war news or politics.
Bowen had descendants serving in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. He said his family was “hesitant, but supportive of the decision.” He said the activation process was “a little bit of a whirlwind,” but was confident his friends and fellow soldiers would support him. “These guys will have my back regardless,” he said.
Bowen joked that the group of friends, who are the youngest people in the company, would help push the stamina of the older soldiers. “They need some fresh guys to keep up with,” he said.
Long said he had always wanted to serve in the military, following in the footsteps of his father. However, he didn’t expect to be shipped out of the country so quickly. He, like many members of the unit, had been assisting with relief work in Hurricane Katrina-devastated New Orleans when the unit was placed on alert. Less than two months later, he was at the armory checking his combat gear, which for the average soldier consists of three duffel bags and a backpack.
Rhymer summed up the advice of veterans who told the group, “Hope for the best and expect the worst.”
One husband-and-wife team from Morganton were preparing for their first mission together, though they met while already enlisted. Staff Sgt. Robert Mullis and Sgt. Holly Mullis met three years ago while mobilizing for duty. They dated for a year and got married, but shortly afterward, Robert got notice he was being activated. Holly gave birth to their son while he was away, though Robert received a leave so he could attend the birth. Family members will take care of the toddler and Robert’s two other children while they are on active duty.
Holly transferred to Robert’s unit in April, shortly after he returned from his first tour of duty. Though they will serve in the same unit, they must stay in gender-segregated barracks during their tour. Depending on the assigned missions, they may not even see each other every day.
Specialist Kenneth Brock of Newton joined the unit several years before his sister Ruby did, though she was part of her high school Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. She said she didn’t enlist until Kenneth returned from active duty, and their parents “feel a lot better that we’re together.”
Jordan said soldiers would have all their gear inspected before being sent off for training at Camp Adderly in Indiana. He said exact convoy times, and the schedule for overseas deployment, were classified information because “there is an enemy” and with the increase of terrorist tactics, the familiar waving crowds along the convoy line were not encouraged as they were in past military conflicts.
“We don’t want to give the enemy any advantage,” Jordan said. “The actual number of troops deployed is confidential. The enemy can count, too.”
Not everyone at the armory preparing will be leaving home. Staff Sgt. Robert Moore served in the tour that ended this fall, but will be stationed at the armory in a support role, taking care of records, equipment, paperwork, and any duties assigned to the National Guard.
Barbara Daye, a former dean of students at ASU, was on hand as part of an auxiliary support group that helps families communicate with soldiers ande distribute newsletters and packages. Though she’s not related to anyone in the unit, she became involved after working with students who returned from Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
“I enjoyed it so much I decided to help again,” Daye said. “When these men and women go, they are people we see every day. They’re members of our families and communities. This is a hardship on them and we need to be helping our neighbors.”
Jordan said the soldiers would undergo training even if they had served previously. The training is specific to the Iraqi and Kuwaiti area where the unit is expected to serve, and soldiers also need to be trained on any new equipment.
The soldiers are under the command of Capt. Kelly Frazier. While the length of the tour is undetermined, Jordan said generally deployment lasts from 12 to 18 months, with periods of training and physical examinations on each end.
Watauga Democrat – High Country Media, Boone NC