Two Wisconsin Army National Guard units on the verge of deploying to Afghanistan received a visit from their senior leaders as they trained at Fort Bliss, Texas, this week.
The Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin-based 829th Engineer Company and the Sussex, Wisconsin-based Battery A of the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery have been training at Fort Bliss since leaving Wisconsin in early April. Now the two units are concluding the last of their pre-mobilization training and packing their equipment before heading to Afghanistan.
Senior leaders from the Wisconsin Army National Guard's higher headquarters and the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade ó both units' higher headquarters ó visited Fort Bliss to wish the Soldiers well.
The two units will have vastly different missions, but both feel confident and ready to deploy.
"I feel really well-prepared," said Spc. Cody Harlan, an electrician with the 829th Engineer Company who is currently studying biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "The cumulative training exercises were pretty realistic, and our platoon ó and I know the other platoons ó we've all had hiccups, but you have to train to a standard.
"Failing is good because it's better to fail here where it's simulated than it is downrange," he added. "So I think everybody in the chain of command has done a good job of filling in the gaps and getting everyone on the same page."
Sgt. 1st Class Eric Chojnacki, a platoon sergeant in the 829th, agreed.
"Mistakes are acceptable here, because that's how you learn," he said. "That's what we tell them every day. You're here for training. You're going to make mistakes, and that's how we adjust."
Chojnacki is deploying alongside his wife, Staff Sgt. Mandy Chojnacki. The couple lives in Amherst Junction, Wisconsin.
The 829th has been focused largely on its engineer mission, counter-improvised explosive device training and conducting vehicle and weapons training, as it prepares to deploy. The unit recently completed its cumulative training exercise where it experienced a simulated training event that mirrored the day-to-day operations it will encounter in Afghanistan.
Based in Chippewa Falls with detachments in Ashland, Wisconsin and Richland Center, the 829th is a vertical construction company. But rather than erecting buildings in Afghanistan, the unit will de-construct facilities on forward operating bases in Afghanistan as part of the responsible drawdown of U.S. forces operating in the country. The unit's mission will be to reclaim as much material as possible to save U.S. taxpayer money and prevent those materials from falling into enemy hands.
Many of the Soldiers noted how the unit has come together as a team since it began training at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin in March.
"It's a huge improvement over the first few days of annual training there," Sgt. Kenneth Wendell said of the unit's camaraderie. "Huge improvement. We're doing a lot of teamwork. People have gotten to know each other. Friendships and everything. It's been pretty cool watching it all."
Wendell is a team leader in the 829th from Appleton, Wisconsin.
1st Sgt. Brian Kelly, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, had a similar observation.
"We all just became a family," he said. "There's no way not to. We live together 24/7 and train together."
Kelly, the unit's senior enlisted Soldier, said he's been amazed at the hard work and dedication the unit has shown during its train-up. As a result, he said, morale within the unit is high.
"These guys have been busting their butts from the time we got here to now," Kelly said.
Meanwhile, Battery A has also been training at Fort Bliss since departing Milwaukee after an April 2 sendoff ceremony. The high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) unit conducted much of the same training, while also honing its artillery skills. When the unit arrives in Afghanistan, it will become just the second National Guard unit to perform a combat fire support mission there. The first was its brethren from the same battalion ó Battery B, based in Plymouth, Wisconsin, which returned from Afghanistan in October.
The significance of their mission is not lost on the unit's Soldiers.
"It's everyone's dream, right? You go through all of this training, and you get a chance to deploy, and maybe it's not necessarily in your skill set," said Capt. Aaron Ammerman, the unit's commander. "It's still a great opportunity to deploy, but now to get a chance on my third deployment to operate how I've been trained over the last 10 or 11 years is a fantastic opportunity to go and shoot rockets and provide some actual combat support to a combat role."
In many cases, artillery units have been re-purposed for non-artillery missions like convoy security or detainee operations. Few have had the opportunity perform combat artillery fire missions.
"I can't wait to shoot rockets downrange," said Pfc. Jesse Ard. "I'm in an ammo section, so I've got a really important job."
"I wasn't able to go with B Battery," Ard said. "That would have been really cool to be the first National Guard unit to do it, but it's just as special doing it with A Battery, and I'm just as lucky."
While on pass, Ard, of Necedah, Wisconsin, got engaged to his girlfriend.
Ard and others in the unit expressed their confidence in the unit and its preparedness for such an important mission.
The unit had already conducted much of the same training it received at Fort Bliss while on annual training at Fort McCoy, explained Pfc. Andrew Lindemann, a student at Carroll University and native of Waukesha, Wisconsin.
"We got down here and kind of just blew [the training] out of the water," he said.
Like the 829th, Lindemann said it has been fun to watch Battery A come together as a team over the course of the last few months.
"After two months of us being together ó a month up at Fort McCoy and a month down here ó it's really been fun to see how cohesive we have become," he said. "You drill once a month and for a couple weeks in the summer and you get to know the guys, but we've really come to know each other a lot more now that we're living all together for two months."
"I know that I'd be able to go up to any of these guys and that they'd have my back in anything," Lindemann said.
Thanks to the experiences Battery B brought back from Afghanistan last year, Battery A has had some of the best training possible for its mission, many of the Soldiers said.
"I think this unit has received some of the best training of anyone that has done this mission on either active duty or National Guard," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Walsh, of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. "We had Soldiers that just got back less than a year ago training us, and they had nobody to train them. So we got the best training you could possibly have to do this mission."
The Soldiers of Battery A know they are getting a realistic depiction of what they will face when they arrive in Afghanistan.
"It's a very young group, but I think everyone is professional and is ready to go on and carry on, do this mission and come home to our families," Walsh said.
Both the 829th and Battery A are set to leave Fort Bliss in the near future.