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Engineer Unit Makes Sure New Soldiers Feel At Home

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind., Dec. 10, 2004 – When Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Smith was asked by a visitor if he could send for a couple of soldiers from the 844th Engineer (Combat Heavy) Battalion to talk about their pending deployment to Iraq, the entire Charlie Company knocked on his door.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Smith of the 844th Engineer (Combat Heavy) Battalion talks with members of Charlie Company during a break in mobilization training at Camp Atterbury, Ind., where the unit is preparing for possible deployment to Iraq. Some 170 soldiers are newcomers to the battalion, but say the command has made them feel very much a part of the unit. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

It was if they all had something they wanted to say about this unit. And the interview quickly moved from the sergeant major's tiny office here to a nearby dining facility.

"This group here is my extended family," Smith said while introducing the soldiers. "We are all family in this room."

If that is the case, then Camp Atterbury is the site for the annual family reunion. And many of the soldiers who have come to this rural Indiana National Guard Training Center awaiting possible deployment to Iraq are like distant cousins meeting for the first time: The 844th is made up of nearly 200 soldiers who came from other units.

Most of the soldiers in Charlie Company never knew each other or trained together before arriving here just seven weeks ago. But you wouldn't know it from talking to its members.

Despite being together for such a short time, 844th leaders here have built a family that has bonded like no other. Like many Guard and Reserve units suffering personnel shortages, Lt. Col. Donato Dinello, the 844th commander, said his unit had to be pieced together with soldiers from other units. It's a practice the Reserve calls "cross-leveling," in which soldiers are borrowed from other units to fill vacancies. Other voids are filled with Individual Ready Reserve members.

To maintain cohesion and to ensure that new soldiers felt part of the unit, Dinello said the plan was to get cross-level soldiers "rapidly assimilated" into the unit.

"My exact comments were, 'Bring them in here, treat them like they've always been here, and get them accustomed to our way of doing things,'" he said.

Dinello said bringing in "cross-levels" and IRR soldiers to help meet readiness levels is not a common practice in the reserves during peacetime, but that "it's quite common during times of war. The priority is to fill the unit deploying ahead of you."

That explains the personnel shortages in the 844th. The practice of swapping out soldiers hit the Knoxville, Tenn.-based unit hard as it prepared to take part in the third rotation of troops to Iraq.

Dinello said that when the 844th got orders to mobilize, it was without nearly 170 of its soldiers and some of its best leaders. Many of those leaders already had deployed to Iraq or had just returned after filling vacancies in other Reserve units during the first two rotations of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Knowing he would need those veterans to carry the unit on its current mission, Dinello personally asked many of those who had returned after serving as many as 14 months of duty to go back again, this time with their own unit.

"I just asked them one by one, and I told them, 'Hey, I need you to go back with me,' Dinello said soberly. "And each and every one of them said, 'Yes.'"

It is that kind of dedicated service and devotion that the newcomers to Charlie Company respect most about serving in this unit. Not only do they feel they belong here, but they express confidence in the experienced leadership, which makes them feel more secure about their mission, Dinello said.

Spc. Moneka Smith, 24, of Decatur Ga., is a cross-level soldier who was studying to become a registered nurse at Georgia Military Institute when she got orders to join the 844th. Prior to her arrival here in October, she received a welcome packet from the 844th that told everything about the unit, the history and the mission. She said the gesture "really made us feel like we were part of the family."

"It's always difficult," she said. "Coming into a new unit being a cross-level soldier, coming to a new place, a new state, and not knowing anyone or anything about the unit is hard, but I trust my leaders. You always have that fear, especially when you know that there are terrorists out there. However, I feel very confident, because we have a lot of experienced leaders who have been in combat before, and that helps relieve most of the fear that I have about this mission. I know they are going to take care of us."

Added Sgt. Ryan Hartley, 26, an individual ready reservist from Rochester, N.Y., who is back on active duty after a one-year hiatus: "Having so many soldiers who have never trained together, and to come together like we have, it is definitely amazing. I would definitely, without a question, follow this unit into battle."

It is that family-like togetherness that Smith feels will sustain this unit in what may be it toughest mission yet.

"We must take care of each other like family. If we don't, then we will falter," he said. "From squad leader, to platoon sergeant, to the first sergeant and commander, we take care of each other. It's like being a father, and this is my family. You want the best for them."

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