1st of 117th prepares for imminent deployment in Iraq

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 16, 2005

The "possibility" of deployment is gone and the imminent departure of 140 members of the 1st Battalion of the 117th Field Artillery Unit is approaching. Friday, 45 members of the Alabama Army National Guard Unit began their Soldier Readiness Processing in advance of their August 21 mobilization in the United States Army in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the global war on terror.

The looks on the faces of the men clearly reflected the seriousness of the SRP. They were busy discussing financial matters, completing paperwork, training papers, and medical records with officials from the state headquarters in Montgomery. Never before had many of them ever had to deal with such a serious topic. In fact, the 1st of the 117th has not been deployed into service in the regular army since the Korean War, and then they weren't sent into a war zone. Individual soldiers, however, have had experience in combat situations, and they have been helping others cope.

"It's been sinking in for a while," said Capt. Chris Theilacker. "This is probably making it more 'real' for some of them. I think, though, that the reality began sinking in when the alert order was read, and then, when a team of soldiers came and measured them during summer camp for body armor - that made it hit home for many of them."

But looking beyond the serious expressions on many faces, the pride these soldiers have in the job they are about to do was evident in their chatter among fellow soldiers and in the actions they took before the SRP.

"I didn't have any come up to me and say, 'Captain, don't put me on the list'," Theilacker said. "In fact, it was just the opposite. I had people volunteer saying, 'Put me on the list. I want to go.' That makes me feel good not just to be a part of the Army, but it makes me proud to be an American Š these guys willing to serve their country in this fashion. It should make us all proud."

Around the room, the younger members of the 1st of the 117th seemed to be more "at ease" with the situation, Theilacker said.

"These younger guys are the ones that signed up in the past year or two," he said. "They knew all along there wasn't a 'possibility', but more of a matter of 'when.'

This is what they signed up for, knowing it would happen."

The 140 members of the 1st of the 117th, will be deployed in August as Bravo Battery of the 1st of the 117th Field Artillery - which is the name assigned to the Luverne/Greenville unit, although officially, they will be deployed out of Andalusia.

"The Battery will be made up of guard members from Andalusia, Citronelle, Luverne/Greenville, and Geneva," Theilacker said. "They will deploy, officially under the Luverne/Greenville name, but we are all the same, and we are all family."

Facing 365 days of "Boots on the Ground" in Kuwait and Iraq, the men of the 1st of the 117th are looking at more than a year's time away from home.

"The 365 days is actual time in Kuwait and Iraq," Theilacker said. "It doesn't count training time in Indiana or time home on leave. That's the current policy we are operating under, but it could change."

Never an easy thing to face, the soldiers had assistance in preparing for their imminent deployment. Instead of being processed and sent on their way, the officials from Montgomery were taking their time speaking with the soldiers, addressing their concerns and guiding them to different ways to help their families.

"The men and women helping process the soldiers have been extremely kind and compassionate during this process," Theilacker said. "They are answering their questions and making sure everything is in order. They don't want to just send these guys on their way. They want to make sure everything is taken care of for them and their families."

"In fact, the people in Montgomery have a huge stake in this," he continued. "They want to make sure everything is done right, and that there are no problems that could arise. Also, they see each of these men as one of their own, and they don't want anything to happen to them, either."

For family members of guard members facing deployment, they, too, will have the opportunity to express their concerns. Monday night, officials from the Family Readiness Group will be presenting a program to answer all questions family members might have.

"The state coordinator will be here to answer questions as long as it takes," Theilacker said. "Families have a lot of questions and concerns, and the Family Readiness Group understands those and wants to make sure that all families are as comfortable as possible with what lies ahead."

Families aren't the only ones affected by the deployment, however, and Theilacker said each soldier's employer has been notified and will soon be receiving more information.

"Once the alert order was given, employers and soldiers began the process of preparing for deployment," he said. "In the coming weeks employers will begin receiving a soldier's individual mobilization orders which entitles the soldier to certain protections under law."

The men from the 1st of the 117th won't be going into an active combat zone without proper training and knowledge of the situation, however. In fact, they've been speaking with fellow soldiers who have returned from deployment, and with those currently deployed.

"We've been talking a lot with other units about what conditions are like and what to expect," Theilacker said. "The men will also be heading to Indiana for further training before being sent into the combat zone. Their mission will be one of transportation, not artillery, so they will be receiving additional training stateside before heading over."

Prior to their deployment, the men of the 1st of the 117th will be given a proper send off.

"We mobilize on August 21, and on August 22 we will have a deployment ceremony here in Andalusia for families and friends to say good-bye to their loved ones," Theilacker said. "The location hasn't been determined yet, but it will include the whole city and the other cities where soldiers will be coming from. The soldiers will then report on August 24 to their station in Indiana for further training for a few months before heading to Kuwait and into Iraq."