Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders joined families and friends of the approximately 160-person 829th Engineer Company in a formal sendoff ceremony March 28 at Fort McCoy, Wis.
The 829th is a vertical engineer company in Chippewa Falls, Wis., with detachments in Ashland, Wis., and Richland Center, Wis. But rather than erecting buildings, the unit will take down structures on forward operating bases in Afghanistan as part of the responsible drawdown of U.S. forces there. In doing so, the unit will reclaim as much material as possible to save taxpayer money and prevent such materials from being acquired by enemy forces in Afghanistan.
Capt. Kyle Gruber, 829th Engineer Company commander, said he has devoted the past year to preparing his unit for this mission with training missions in El Salvador and innovative readiness training projects in northern Wisconsin, as well as three weeks dedicated to warrior task training at Fort McCoy.
"I am fully impressed and humbled at the dedication, motivation and fierce loyalty displayed each and every day by every one of our Soldiers," Gruber said during the ceremony. Turning to Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin's adjutant general, he continued: "First Sergeant and I are very pleased, and Sir, I wholeheartedly report today that my intent has been accomplished and we are ready to mobilize."
Roughly half of the unit has prior deployment experience. 1st Sgt. Brian Kelly of Holmen, Wis., said those experienced Soldiers were providing guidance for the younger Soldiers who are deploying for the first time. Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army, encouraged the young Soldiers of the 829th to soak up their advice.
"You have been preparing for this for the past 12 to 14 months - but to be quite honest, you've been preparing for it your entire military career," Anderson said. "Seek their experience and glean everything you can. Rely on your training. What you have gained in knowledge and skills and experience during your time in uniform will serve you well as you serve the country over in Afghanistan."
Many of the Soldiers deploying for the first time are going in without preconceived notions.
"I've chosen not to expect anything, just take everything as it comes because the only thing you can expect is change," said Spc. Samantha Arnold of Dodgeville, Wis., a heavy equipment operator.
"I'm just going to take it as it comes," said Spc. Louis Neal, also a heavy equipment operator from Dodgeville. "I'm looking forward to it - I'm excited for the experience, looking forward to getting closer to a lot of people here and making new friendships."
"Take it one day at a time," added Spc. Austin Heath of Brodhead, Wis., an electrician with the 829th. "That's all you can do."
"I'm glad I get the chance to do this," Neal said. "When I enlisted I was afraid I was going to be in too late to be able to go over there and make a difference. I want to go over there and do something, I'm excited to do that. And if that's turning out the lights, then that's what I'm going to do."
Pfc. Tanetta Carter of Milwaukee just completed her training in carpentry and masonry last month. She admitted to being a little nervous but was also confident in her training.
"It's kind of an honor, really, to be 21 and doing something as big as this," she said. "Just to see the end of this - we've been there a long time, and going over there, tearing things down and bringing our troops home, it's a good feeling."
Spc. Mark Lewis of Milwaukee, a signal and communications specialist from the 120th Field Artillery deploying with the 829th, said he is keeping an open mind.
"I'm looking forward to a good experience and being able to further advance myself in my job," he said.
Spc. Nathaniel Hitchcock and his younger brother, Pfc. Johnathon Hitchcock, both of Ashland, Wis., each have less than two years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. Nathaniel joined because their father served in the Army, and Johnathon decided to join after seeing his brother graduate basic training. They are in the same platoon but different squads - Nathaniel works as a plumber in the unit and Johnathon works in carpentry and masonry.
"We'll see just enough of each other to keep in contact, but not so much that we'll [get on each other's nerves]," Johnathon said.
"It feels great to be part of the team that turns off the lights [in Afghanistan]," Nathaniel said. "And I'm glad to deploy with my brother - a little bit of familiarity. When we get back everything is going to be so different. It will be nice to have someone who's been there."
Anderson and Dunbar thanked the families and employers at the sendoff for supporting their Soldiers as they prepared for this deployment.
"Family members, I want you to know I understand it's not so easy for you to say goodbye to your loved one," Dunbar said. "Your son or your daughter, your husband or your wife, your mother or your father - I understand the sacrifice you're about to make and for many of you it's the second or third, or the fourth or the fifth time that you've made the sacrifice. Without your support the Soldiers wouldn't stay with us, and without the Soldiers we would be nothing."
Those words likely rang true with Charles and Kim Sippy of Bloomer, Wis., whose son, Spc. Michael Sippy, is among those deploying.
"We're very proud - it means a lot," said Charles, who served in the Army from 1990 to 1994. "Of course, we're nervous, a little scared, but we're very proud, and excited for him.
"He's only 18," Charles continued. "He's been in the National Guard since he was a junior in high school. He's one of the youngest in his unit. He hasn't had a summer home in three years, and now he's getting deployed. That's been a little tough, but we're excited for him."
Kelly described the 829th as "a really young company," but noted that morale was high.
"These guys are experts in construction, so the deconstruction should not be a problem for them," Kelly explained. "I think they're looking forward to it. What better thing than to say we were among the last people out of Afghanistan and helped give the country back to the nationals?"
Kleefisch related the story of George Washington as a young colonial officer fighting alongside crack British troops in 1755 during the French and Indian War. The French and Indians, using guerrilla warfare tactics, cut down more than 700 of the 1,300 British troops in a two-hour battle near Pittsburgh, Pa. Washington was the only surviving officer on horseback, and discovered after the battle that his coat was perforated with bullet holes, yet he had not been wounded. Washington credited his good fortune to divine intervention - as did an Indian chief who had ordered his braves to fire at Washington, and who had himself fired 17 times at the future leader of the Continental Army. Many years after that battle, the chief met Washington face to face, to meet "the man who is the particular favorite of heaven, and who can never die in battle."
"That is my prayer for you all today, to be the particular favorite of heaven," Kleefisch said, "and that the legacy of enduring freedom that Washington fought for that day be also your legacy, and that it may never die in battle."
Dunbar said that even though the mission in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, there is still important work to do.
"We still have the need for great engineers in Afghanistan, which is why we're calling on the Army and why the Army is calling on the Army National Guard in Wisconsin, and why we're calling on the 829th," Dunbar said. "There are simply no better engineers to do this mission than those sitting right here in this room in uniform. So I salute you, Soldiers - you're outstanding at what you do."
The 829th will leave Wisconsin April 4 to continue training at Fort Bliss, Texas for several weeks before arriving in Afghanistan.