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.