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Face of Defense: Soldier Comes Full-Circle With Latest Deployment

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Brent Williams
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq, Nov. 14, 2008 – The senior noncommissioned officer of the fire effects and coordination cell for the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team in Multinational Division Baghdad began his mission almost immediately upon arriving at this base in southern Baghdad’s Rashid district in March.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Master Sgt. Craig Wagner, a forward observer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Multinational Division Baghdad, is a veteran of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and is serving his third combat deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brent Williams
  

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

Currently serving as a special projects manager specializing in force protection for the brigade, Army Master Sgt. Craig Wagner, a forward observer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, has come full circle with a career that has spanned operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm to three deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When Wagner joined the Army in 1988 as a cannon crewmember, Saddam Hussein had the third-largest army in the world. Stationed with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, part of the 7th Corps Cavalry Regiment, Wagner’s duties as a driver and loader -- the No. 1 cannoneer of an M109 Howitzer -- earned him a deployment to Saudi Arabia for the initial push to liberate Kuwait from Iraq’s incursion.

Wagner said he remembers arriving to his unit in Bamberg, Germany, where every sock was rolled tight and arranged perfectly in his locker’s drawer. The floor was like glass, and the room was neat. Soldiers wore their uniforms fresh and starched. Boots were spit-shined to perfection, and haircuts were tight. Everything was squared away.

At the turn of the Cold War, the soldiers of the 7th Corps’ Cavalry Regiment served as the eyes and ears of the corps commander, Wagner said, providing surveillance and security on Germany’s border with what was then Czechoslovakia. The mission kept the soldiers in a constant state of combat readiness, he said, and when alerted, the units reported, loaded their gear and went out the gate to take up defensive positions.

“We were always ready to go to fight the Russians on the East German border, but we never even thought about packing up and going somewhere else,” said Wagner, who grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., and still calls it home.

Within days, the soldiers deployed to Saudi Arabia, where for the next several months, the unit trained and prepared its equipment, awaiting orders in the middle of the desert to drive the Iraqi army from Kuwait.

“We flew into Saudi Arabia, waited for ships to arrive with gear and vehicles, loaded up and moved out,” Wagner said.

The unit was in the port for only a week or so when it assumed positions in the desert along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.

Accustomed to facing off against East Germany and Russian forces across the Czech border, Wagner recalled, U.S. soldiers were curious as to the capabilities of the Iraqi’s Soviet equipment that they had learned to respect as the enemy.

“We were staring across the border at them staring at us,” Wagner said. “All the stuff that they had, we were worried that if we got into a fight, the Soviets would scuff us up really bad. We knew that we were going up against forces a lot bigger than ours. I knew our equipment was good, but I didn’t know that it was going to be that overwhelming of a difference, because the Iraqi forces were using all Soviet equipment.”

The size of the regiment, with its attached elements, was roughly the size of a modern brigade combat team, Wagner said. The unit deployed with three maneuver squadrons, each composed of three cavalry troops made up of scouts, tankers and mortar platoons. Each squadron also had a tank company and an artillery battery, and a forward support squadron and air command squadron completed the regimental force of about 5,000 soldiers.

“Our training was really good; it was top-notch,” Wagner said. “When we finally got the word to go, the superiority of our weapons systems and training, compared to theirs, they didn’t have a chance.”

Removing the guard towers and breaching the 25-foot berm that lined Iraq’s border, the reconnaissance element assumed a wedge formation and tore north to cut off retreating Iraqi forces before they could return to their bases.

The regiment earned the opportunity to test its mettle in the Battle of the 73rd Easting, the biggest battle of the Gulf War and the biggest tank battle since World War II, Wagner said.

“Our jobs were to … make contact with the enemy; so we did,” he said. “Meanwhile, 1st Infantry and 1st Armored divisions were supposed to come up and relieve us, and 12 hours later, they did a relief-in-place with us. They did a forward passage of lines while we were still engaging with the enemy. They did it without any fratricide, and that was impressive.”

By the time reinforcements linked up with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Wagner said, he had shot 100 missions, each consisting of loading one to six 155 mm artillery rounds onto load trays, sliding the round into the cannon, applying powder and prime and waiting for the section sergeant’s signal to fire.

“So the enemy was retreating, trying to get through us to get back to Iraq,” he recalled. “We were blocking their return route.”

The reconnaissance unit was never supposed to go toe-to-toe with the brigade-sized Iraqi element, but the troops were ready to fight, Wagner said. “We had to disengage after running out of ammunition,” he added.

Operation Desert Storm culminated with four days of fighting for U.S. forces after six months of living on tracked vehicles in the middle of the Saudi desert, Wagner said. “The fight will always be with me,” he said. “We were pretty well-prepared and well-trained. We were experts at our weapons systems.”

In the years that followed, Wagner became a forward observer and eventually reported for duty with the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery, 1st Brigade, at Fort Carson, Colo.

Throughout his career, he worked in a variety of positions, from leader to trainer, eventually returning to the Raider Brigade, which was part of Task Force 21, the mission to modernize the Army’s command and control systems used on today’s battlefield.

Despite the many changes he’s seen in the Army during the past two decades, “soldiering” remains the one consistent force, Wagner said.

“By definition, a veteran is somebody who has been to a combat zone and served their country in a time of war,” said Army Sgt. Gary Bixler, a forward observer here. “By definition, Master Sergeant Wagner is a veteran — on his third deployment, plus all the deployments he is not getting credit for. That is a notable thing, to be in for 20 years and still going.

Bixler, a 22-year old native of Hannibal, N.Y., said his goal is to lead soldiers, and that he’s seen the best and worst of the Army during two combat tours to Iraq. He credits Wagner with showing him what it means to be an NCO from the first day that he arrived to the unit and went under the senior NCO’s wing in 2005.

“When I came in the Army, I had never seen the real world, and without his influence, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Bixler said.

Bixler added that Wagner’s pride, professionalism and proficiency in getting the job done -- while still being old-fashioned in some ways -- helped prepare him for his area-denial and counter-fire missions, in which he peppers known points of origin to eliminate the enemy’s indirect fire.

“How could we expect to come over here and not learn anything from people who have been there and done that?” Bixler asked. “It gives me something to look up to; he’s seen a lot in his time, and I have learned a lot from him.”

Wagner said he believes the Raider Brigade saw significant success in securing its area of operations because the brigade took the offensive early from the combat outposts and joint security stations in the Rashid district.

“We went on the offensive when we first got here, and we shot a lot of the anti-Iraqi forces down,” he explained. “We took away their leadership and cut off their supply channels.”

The security in southern Baghdad continues to improve as the Raider Brigade maintains its presence in the communities and neighborhoods, working tirelessly with the Iraqi security forces and the general populace to build trust and keep terrorists and militias out of Rashid, he said.

“I think that a lot of our success has had to do with our relationship with the general public here in Iraq,” Wagner said. “They know us and they trust us, and they know that we’re really going to give them a fair deal. They like to have some safety and security in their neighborhoods, and they know if they let the [criminals and terrorists] set up shop, that will go away.”

He said he expects challenges as units leave without being replaced. It is part of the overall plan, he said, as the brigade will disengage from its direct combat role and move into tactical over-watch, with the Iraqi security forces in the forward position.

Without changing his current role in the Raider Brigade, Wagner said, he wants to see his soldiers maintain their readiness and ability to provide counter-fire in a timely manner if the need should arise again.

“Without getting into the politics of what I think, I knew we would prevail in battle against Saddam’s army – that wasn’t really much of a worry for me,” he said. “I knew we had a far superior force and would go in and win; and I also knew the hard part was going to be after.”

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Brent Williams serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)

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