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Advance Notice Better Prepares Soldiers, Families, Wyoming Guard Leaders Say

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2009 – As the Wyoming Army National Guard ramps up for the largest deployment in the state’s history, its leaders say getting a year and a half’s notice has helped them better prepare soldiers and families.

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Abrianna Salveson stands with her mother, Melissa, while they wait for Spc. Brady Salveson to be released from formation Jan. 10. The three attended a “Family Academy” hosted by the 115th Fires Brigade aimed at preparing families for its upcoming deployment. Longer notification time allowed the brigade to reach out to the families and strengthen its support programs, leaders said. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

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“The bottom line is, that by the time they get to the [mobilization] site, … they’re going to be as close to 100 percent as possible,” Army Col. Steve Mount, the state’s top Army Guard operations official, said.

The state is readying nearly 1,000 troops – more than half of its Army National Guard soldiers and more than a third of its total Guard force -- for deployment to Iraq and Kuwait in April.

The impact has been felt throughout the nation’s least-populous state, and nearly every community is affected, top leaders say. But getting almost 18 months’ notice has allowed them to prepare the soldiers, families and communities in a way that was not afforded to Guard units mobilized on little notice shortly after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Wyoming’s adjutant general said.

“It gives us the [time for] sufficient training that we need to do [before] the [mobilization] that’s going to be required,” Army Maj. Gen. Edward L. Wright said in an interview with American Forces Press Service last week.

The Wyoming National Guard is no stranger to mobilizations. Since Sept. 11, 2001, every Army National Guard unit in the state has been deployed except its band, and even the band has given up members to augment deployed units. Also, Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 Hercules units rotate to the combat theater regularly to support aviation needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the 950 Army National Guard soldiers tapped for deployment, nearly two-thirds have deployed before, senior Army National Guard officials said.

Though the unit was not officially alerted until February, state officials were told in late 2007 of the impending deployment. Under the Army force-generation model, units ideally are given a two-year notice of an upcoming deployment.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in April 2007 pledged more lead time for deploying National Guard units to allow them to train more at home and less at a mobilization site going through standard training required before deployment. And, Gates mandated, reserve-component units would mobilize for only one year.

Early in the two wars, some National Guard units were spending nearly two years away from home, including both the deployment and time spent at a mobilization site before and after a deployment.

This puts the onus on the units for completing the required, standard Army training. Wright said the extra time has allowed his units to complete that training, which he will certify before the units leave, as well as to better prepare the soldiers to meet medical, dental and family requirements.

“Everybody understands the need to have sufficient boots on the ground once you’re called to service, so we don’t spend any more time at a mobilization station than is absolutely necessary,” Wright said. “To the extent that we can have a whole lot of advance notice, [it] equates directly to how much training we can get done prior to mobilization.”

In earlier mobilizations, units had little time to screen soldiers and correct any problems before reporting to a mobilization station, Wright said. This resulted in some soldiers being sent home, deemed unfit for deployment, and left units scrambling to fill those slots, he said.

Now, the Wyoming units will have gone through two readiness screenings -- one early on, allowing the units and the soldiers to fix any problems before the final screening and processing just before leaving for the mobilization site. This will result in more deployable soldiers ready to go when the unit shows up at the mobilization site, Mount said.

Beyond soldier readiness, though, the year-out official alert came with much-needed funding attached that allowed key unit leaders, traditionally part-time soldiers, to be brought on full-time earlier to prepare for the deployment. It also meant millions of dollars in new equipment delivered to the unit, Mount said.

The extra time also allowed commanders to scrub their training schedules to concentrate on training key to the deployment, he added. The field artillery brigade is deploying in a nontraditional combat role to provide management and security for forward operating bases and convoys. This put the brigade in somewhat of a tight spot, as it also was transforming into a fires brigade, with its field artillery battalions changing over from M-198 towed howitzers to the freshly fielded high-mobility artillery rocket system.

The units finished their new equipment training on the rocket systems over the summer, then parked them to prepare for the upcoming deployment.

“The ability to stay focused on the upcoming mission while you are still trying to do your current mission -- because they are both very distinct -- was a challenge for the commanders, and they really had to balance things appropriately,” Mount said. “It’s kind of been a tough go as a result of that.”

Still, Mount said, commanders were able to focus on completing standard individual soldier training and even on integrating additional individual training, such as combat-medic certification.

“We were able to start working a lot of the premobilization requirements in addition to the 32 warrior tasks and 12 battle drills [required for soldiers] early,” Mount said. “It allowed us to start training those soldiers in those skill sets that are above and beyond the 32 and 12.”

On the downside, though, the advance notification worked against the commanders with regard to unit strength, as some soldiers who knew the unit was coming up for another deployment declined to re-enlist. The Army’s stop-loss program, which allows locking soldiers in beyond their enlistment dates, does not affect National Guard soldiers until three months before the deployment date.

“The commanders are very aggressive in trying work their retention plans, trying to convince those soldiers that are considering [leaving] to stick with them a little longer,” Mount said. “Some of them [did] … and others have said, ‘No, I’ve done my duty,’ and they get out.”

But Army Col. Greg Porter, Wyoming Army National Guard chief of staff, said that translated to a better-prepared force. Previous deployments had a larger number of disgruntled soldiers and unprepared families. Now, those who show for mobilization are there voluntarily and are ready.

“We looked around and tried to think of all the things we could do to try to keep folks in, but ultimately ‘incentivizing’ that wasn’t the solution,” Porter said. “Either they’ve got to do it because they believe in the cause, … or they don’t. Most of them stayed because they wanted to.”

For senior National Guard officials, Porter said, the advance notification gave the state the much-needed time to prepare communities and families for the deployment.

“The larger piece of this is ‘How do we prepare families? How do we prepare employers?’ Especially in our state,” Porter said. “With a much smaller timeline, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. That length of time gave us some time to look at the whole elephant and digest it.”

As a result, the state has launched a massive information campaign across the geographically dispersed state, with brigade leaders travelling thousands of miles over several weeks to deliver mobilization briefings to families, employers and community leaders.

The state’s top general said that families especially appreciate the advance notice.

“Families have been telling us for years that they want some kind of predictability -- particularly when we’re in an era of conflict,” Wright said. “It’s not fair to wives and moms and dads … to have a sword hanging over your head and never know, ‘Is tomorrow going to be the day?’”

And it allows unit commanders to further develop their family readiness programs, Wright said. At one time, family programs were somewhat marginalized. They received little or no funding, and had to sell food on drill weekends to raise funds for unit events.

Now, Wright said, that all has changed.

“When units started deploying, … suddenly their purpose became a real viable thing,” Wright said. “I don’t know of a single commander now that doesn’t consider the family program to be a huge part of their unit. You can’t keep a soldier focused on fighting and winning a war when they are worried about what’s going on with their family back in their communities.”

Finally, Wright said, the additional time has allowed him to ask for funding from the state to prepare its units and families for deployment.

At Wright’s request, the Wyoming legislature has poured millions of dollars into Camp Guernsey, a state training site. In just a few years, it has doubled its training size to more than 60,000 acres. It also has improved its infrastructure, billeting and ranges.

The state legislature put $5 million into a trust fund, the interest of which goes to families who suffer a financial hardship while a soldier is deployed. If, for example, a family’s car breaks down and the spouse does not have the money to get it fixed, the family can apply for money for the repairs.

More than $1 million has been paid out in the past five years from the program, Wright said. This week, Wright will ask the state for another $1 million for the fund to support families during this deployment, he said.

“It’s much better in terms of all kinds of planning to say definitively the unit that you’re in is going on this day, two years out. … I think there is nothing but good from it,” Wright said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Pfc. Katie Farlinger, with the 148th Signal Company out of Laramie, Wyo., makes her way over the rocky bluffs at the Camp Guernsey Wyoming National Guard training site during land navigation training, Jan. 10, 2009. Wyoming is preparing for the largest Army National Guard deployment in the state’s history. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Staff Sgt. Mike Benskin, with the 148th Signal Company out of Laramie, Wyo., crawls during predeployment training at the Camp Guernsey Wyoming National Guard training site during land navigation training, Jan. 10, 2009. Nearly 1,000 Army National Guardsmen are due to deploy in April, the largest single deployment in the state’s history. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageGunnar Swanson, left, plays with his brother, Hunter, at the Army National Guard armory in Casper, Wyo., during soldier readiness processing, Jan. 10, 2009. The boys’ father, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Swanson, is deploying in April. This is the second time the soldiers have gone through the screening, reducing the number of soldiers who report to the mobilization site and are not deemed deployable. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Staff Sgt. Jerry Poole, with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 300th Field Artillery, Wyoming Army National Guard, is screened for dental health during a soldier readiness processing Jan. 10. The longer notification time allowed soldiers to work through dental problems earlier allowing them to be fixed before deployment. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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