Every time the Soldiers of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 950th Engineer Company go out on a mission, they know they are saving lives.
The route clearance company from Superior, Wisconsin, which is in the final phase of its pre-mobilization training at Fort Bliss, Texas, is one of just a handful of units within the Army specifically designed to combat the threat posed by improvised explosive devices. Secure roadways and infrastructure are key to the international coalition's military efforts in Afghanistan. They are also vital corridors for Afghan civilians trying to go about their daily lives.
Enter the 950th, which with every bomb, IED or other threat that it identifies, will make the roads of Afghanistan a safer place.
"There's not a whole lot of missions in the Army that you can really say this, but every time you go out, no matter what, when you find those bombs you're saving somebody's life - be it friendly, a civilian or coalition," said Capt. Andrew Redd, the unit's commander. "And I just feel good about that as a person. If nothing else, when I'm old, I'll look back and say, ëI found X number of bombs.' And who knows, maybe that guy is the future of our world. So I feel good about our mission."
Redd and his unit have been hard at work at Fort Bliss preparing for their upcoming deployment since leaving Wisconsin in October, and the 950th is up to the task. The unit's training evaluators heaped praise on the unit's professionalism and skills during a recent visit from senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders, and they've been honing their craft with intense training scenarios.
"I feel really good," Redd said of the training at Fort Bliss. "These guys are throwing a ton of stuff at us. I'd love a couple months or even a year down here training with these guys, but I feel really confident about where we're at and how we're going to perform on our mission."
"They're challenging us, and they're really making our guys think about it and develop new stuff and work together to succeed and do well," he added.
The nearly 100 Soldiers of the 950th are coming together as a tight-knit group on the eve of their deployment, according to company First Sgt. Jason Miller.
"With the training going on, the platoons are really starting to become cohesive teams," he said. "They were cohesive before, but now they're just melding together spending all the time out on mission, spending long days getting to know each other more, starting to rely on each other, knowing who they can rely on to do what."
Approximately half of the unit has deployed before ñ many to Iraq in 2010 on an earlier route clearance mission with the 950th ñ and those veteran Soldiers have been an invaluable asset to the younger Soldiers getting ready to deploy for the first time, Miller said.
One of those Soldiers is Staff Sgt. Bill Connolly, of Superior, who was a specialist when the unit deployed to Iraq in 2010. Now he's a truck commander responsible for the lives of his crew and equipment.
He said the unit is confident in its training and preparedness as they near the end of their pre-mobilization training. They've trained with handheld mine detectors, robots and honed their skills on the unit's primary vehicles - the Buffalo mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle and the Husky, a mine-detecting vehicle with ground-penetrating radar.
The unit is focused on battle drills and developing the muscle memory it will need overseas. It's also focused on developing confidence.
"We want them to know that they're the tip of the spear," Connolly said. "And we want them to know that we're the fight. At this point, especially with Afghanistan drawing down, we're going to be a small percentage of people that are the fight there."
Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin's adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the assistant adjutant general for Army, Lt. Col. Jon Russell, 724th Engineer Battalion commander and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the state's senior enlisted advisor, travelled to Fort Bliss to observe the unit's training and visit with the Soldiers, and they came away impressed.
"You guys are doing some fantastic training, and you're one of the best units I've had the experience to work with," Russell told unit members during the visit.
"I want to let you all know that you'll be in our thoughts and prayers overseas," he said. "I know you guys are as well-trained as can be and highly motivated professional Soldiers and will represent not only the United States but the State of Wisconsin in a professional manner."
The unit will complete the last of its training at Fort Bliss in the next several weeks before heading overseas. The unit deployed twice previously to Iraq in 2003 and 2010, but the upcoming deployment will be its first to Afghanistan. Since leaving the Badger State in mid-October, the 950th has been overwhelmed by support from home, the unit's commander said.
"Thanks to the families and the community back home," Redd said. "I think my mail clerk looks like they've been at the gym the entire month-and-a-half carrying all these packages back. So thank you to everyone for the support."
Well-trained with loads of support from home, the unit is now ready to go make a difference in Afghanistan.
"I would not rather take any other group of individuals over there with me than the guys I have with me right now," 1st Sgt. Miller said. "I trust them with my life."