Wednesday, April 30, 2014

5 years after | Wisconsin Guard mobilization to Iraq

In case you missed it. Five years later: Wisconsin National Guard deployment to Iraq.

Five years ago, thousands of Wisconsin factory workers, farmers, students, hamburger cooks and accountants were far from their homes, crossing the desert frontier between Kuwait and Iraq on a historic mission to help bring an unpopular war to a close.

When the Wisconsin National Guard’s largest deployment to a combat zone since World War II ended about eight months later, 3,200 men and women returned with vivid memories of desert heat, blinding sandstorms, extended separation from families and friends, interaction with a foreign culture, and duties that ranged from tedious to harrowing.

They arrived back in Wisconsin amid one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history. Many encountered rough patches reuniting with families. More than a few struggled to slow down to the speed of civilian life after missions that required constant vigilance.

And many brought home new confidence and fresh perspectives after overcoming difficult circumstances overseas, said Lt. Col. Ryan Brown, executive officer for the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which accounted for most of the roughly 4,000 state Guard members on full-time active duty overseas during 2009.

“Deployments change lives,” said Brown, who spent 2009 — his third military deployment — as defense operations chief for the cluster of military bases in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. “For the most part, people come back more prepared to deal with the rest of their lives rather than less prepared. Some will say ‘this is making my life harder,’ but the vast majority are better equipped to deal with life in general.”

Despite the well-documented stress of lengthy mobilizations, the state Guard’s turnover rate stayed at about 15 to 16 percent as deployments grew more frequent during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Brown said.

“Retention is high because we paid some attention to it,” said Col. Tim Lawson, commander of the 32nd IBCT. “We went out of our way to work with employers and families.”

Since 2009, the state Guard’s Madison-based Service Member Support Division has grown, making it able to deliver more assistance to soldiers and families before, during and after deployments, Lawson said.

The division added a job placement service in 2012 when unemployment was running at 10 percent in the 32nd.

Military officials say men and women with experience like overseas deployments are great hires because they have been trained as disciplined leaders and problem solvers.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Top rangers | Wisconsin's 1st Lt. Nicholas Plochar helps team to highest finish yet

First Lt. Nicholas Plocar of the Wisconsin Army National Guard navigates a balance beam obstacle over Victory Pond, Fort Benning, Ga., April 11, 2014, during the 31st annual Best Ranger Competition. (Army photo by Sgt. Austin Berner)

From Vaughn Larson, Wisconsin National Guard PAO:

FORT BENNING, Ga. - "Ladies and gentlemen, in second place, Team 32 — Capt. Robert Killian, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, Colorado Army National Guard, and 1st Lt. Nicholas Plocar, 127th Infantry, Wisconsin Army National Guard."

And with those words from Col. Kyle Lear, commander of the Ranger Training Brigade, the Army National Guard secured its highest finish in the annual Best Ranger Competition.

Of the 50 teams to start the competition April 13 at Fort Benning, Ga., four belonged to the National Guard, and two teams included Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers. Besides Team 32, Team 34 included 1st Lt. Jose Moreno of the Rhode Island Army National Guard and Staff Sgt. William Kocken, also of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry.

Team 34 finished 19th out of the 26 teams to complete the competition. The other two National Guard teams — 35 and 33 — finished in 17th and 11th place, respectively.

"Less than 1 percent of our Soldiers are Ranger qualified," Lear said to open the awards ceremony following the grueling three-day event. "The 26 teams you will see lined up tonight represent the absolute best of that one percent."

This was the third consecutive best Ranger Competition for Plocar, and the experience showed. Team 32 led the competition from the opening event, surrendering the lead only after the Spot Drop event on day three. Plocar and Killian — who were teammates in 2012 — finished strong in the competition's final event, taking the lead in the Buddy Run about one minute into the run and building a considerable lead en route to their first-place finish. But that was not enough to reclaim the lead from the team of second lieutenants from the 25th Infantry Division.

"It's a bittersweet feeling," Plocar acknowledged. "We did so well over the first two days in so many events. To come up short on one event is tough. But it's still a good result, and good for the National Guard."

According to the Best Ranger Competition website, the "average" competitor is 28 years old, 5-foot 10-inches, 165 pounds, Airborne Ranger qualified, a decathlon-caliber athlete, and ranges in age from specialist to major. Just over one in four have competed in the event before.

This was the first Best Ranger Competition for Kocken, who just earned his Ranger tab last year.

"1st Lt. Plocar and I work out together," Kocken said. "He suggested I ask battalion to see if I could take the Best Ranger assessment."

That assessment gauges Soldiers' physical fitness and skill competence, and serves as an audition of sorts to determine who can compete.

"One way to find out how good you are is to go up against the best guys on the planet," Kocken said.

Events each competitor must conquer over the course of 60 hours include a foot march of at least 20 miles while wearing a 60-pound rucksack; a grenade course; the Darby Queen obstacle course; rope climb and rappelling; spot jump; a helocast and swim; a water confidence test slide for life and rope drop; and military skills such as marksmanship, land navigation and communication.

Kocken had mixed feelings over his team's overall finish.

"After Day One we were in second place," he said. "We went into day land navigation and got a little flustered — we ended up getting disqualified from that event, and it was too hard to make up the points. Make one or two small mistakes and it really hurts you."

Plocar noted that few National Guard Soldiers get the opportunity to conduct spot jumps as part of their regular training.

"We were in the top five, top 10 in every event but one," he said. "But it wasn't enough to get first place."

Kocken said the National Guard made a statement at this year's competition.

"A few years ago the National Guard wasn't making it past the second day [of the Best Ranger Competition]," Kocken said. "Now we've got four teams in the top 20 — that says a lot about how far the Guard has come."

Plocar agreed.

"Our Soldiers are top of the line," he said. "They can do the job as good as any Soldier in the Army."

Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army, shared that sentiment.

"We are unbelievably proud of both 1st Lt. Plocar and Staff Sgt. Kocken in the manner that they represented not only themselves but the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a whole," Anderson said. "This competition is the premier event for Rangers, and to have two Soldiers not only compete in all events but finish so strong is a tremendous reflection of their dedication as Soldiers."

Plocar said that not fulfilling his goal of winning the Best Ranger Competition has kept drawing him back. Kocken, noting the three-month time commitment required to train up and participate in the competition, suggested that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him.

"I would love to go back," he said, "but I need to train with my squad, too."

Plocar and Kocken thanked the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry for supporting them over the past three months, as well as the National Guard and their families.

"Without their support … none of this would have been possible," Plocar said. "It's a very special three days that not a lot of people get to see."

"It's a great experience," Kocken added. "But we covered at least 43 miles on Day One — I'm still finding blisters all over."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hasty Craters | Dodgeville Army unit to compete in Sapper Stakes at Fort McCoy

From the 416th Theater Engineer Command Public Affairs Office just south of the (Wisconsin-Illinois) border:

Seven Army Reserve combat engineers belonging to the 469th Engineer Company, headquartered in Dodgeville, Wis., will compete in the first ever theater-level Sapper Stakes competition in May.
Sapper Stakes will take place at Fort McCoy, Wis., from May 5-8 to select the three best combat engineer teams in the Army Reserve.
Sapper Stakes events have been held before, but never of this size and at this command level in the Reserve.
The 416th Theater Engineer Command, headquartered in Darien, Ill., and the 412th TEC, headquartered in Vicksburg, Miss., are responsible for all of the engineer Soldiers in the Army Reserve, and a combined total of 26,000 Soldiers of various job specialties across the continental U.S.
Approximately 26 teams are expected, with five to seven members each, representing six brigades.
The participating Soldiers are assigned to mobility augmentation companies, route clearance companies, area clearance platoons and engineer battalion headquarters. Sapper Stakes focuses on team cohesion while testing mental and physical stamina of each team member, as well as their tactical and technical skills.
The goal is to include National Guard and Active Duty teams in the future and run the competition annually.
Each team will be tested in the area of physical fitness, ruck marching, knot tying, demolition, hasty road crater, landing zone, in-stride breaching, improvised explosive investigation, reconnaissance, weapon assembly, casualty evacuation, Army warrior skills and rifle marksmanship.