Members of the Minnesota National Guard unit called the "Red Bulls" won't easily forget that their division has served the longest combat tour of any military unit in the Iraq War.
The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division was serving an extended tour in Iraq in 2005 when the Pentagon extended its duty. All told, the soldiers were away from home for more than 22 months. They returned to Minnesota in 2007.
This summer, 2400 soldiers from the same brigade are preparing to deploy again as part of the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq. cp
So why are the Red Bulls already going overseas again? It's simply their turn, said Lt. Col. Larry Herke, a mobilization readiness specialist for the Guard. The brigades' presence in the Middle East will help the military meet its Dec. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. forces from Irag.
"We have had more time at home than most units and the reason for that was because of the long deployment that we had last time," Herke said. "They try to give you as a minimum twice the amount of time that you are mobilized back at home again."
On this mission, the Red Bulls will handle security and run convoys into Iraq, bringing people and equipment out. Herke said the Red Bulls' experience with similar activities six years ago made the unit a good choice for the mission. Commanders are also familiar with the terrain.
But the extended deployment took a toll on the unit. After that tour, many longtime soldiers left the military, Guard officials say. Attrition and turnover partly account for why more than 60 percent of the soldiers headed overseas have never served in combat before.
Maj. Tadd Vanyo, 36, of the Brainerd-based 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor, said he was surprised to see such a high percentage of fresh recruits on his deployment roster. But he also sees advantages.
"It's a double-edged sword," Vanyo said of the high number of young recruits. "The guys that have never deployed before will listen to anything you say. It's the gospel, alright?"
Soldiers returning to the war zone are familiar with the hardships they're likely to face. But Vanyo said the upcoming tour will be different because so much has changed for the country and its people.
"We are going to struggle a little bit because the rules of engagement and the interaction with the civilian populace and stuff like that has completely changed," he said.
Another advantage for the unit, Vanyo said, is that unlike in the past when many Guard and Reserve troops served stateside, today's recruits enlist knowing that they may be sent into. Many of them want to go to war.
Even though Iraq has seen a decrease in violence in recent years, the new recruits may get their chance to fight.
On the last tour, when about 3,000 Minnesota Guard members deployed to Iraq, more than 20 soldiers died, Herke said. This time, convoys on the roads will be vulnerable to attack for longer periods of time, because they'll travel greater distances.
Herke said the Minnesota National Guard will play an important role in helping the United States leave Iraq.
"It would be nice if that was a Red Bull convoy that was the last to go out," he said. "I think it proves that, especially [given] the suffering that this unit had last time around, as far as the losses in battle and the wounded folks and all the time away from family, that all of that was worth it, that we actually accomplished something and left a better Iraq."
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