More than 1,300 soldiers are deploying to Iraq this month for the Kentucky National Guard's final mission there: helping to shut down U.S. military operations. But some soldiers are coping with not only the pressure of deployment, but also the stress of putting their civilian jobs on hold.
The Kentucky National Guard's 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade will primarily be in charge of convoy security in Iraq, making sure U.S. equipment gets safely to Kuwait and onto ships. They represent half of the 2,600 troops they'll be joining from Oregon, Virginia and Utah.
But the brigade's first stop is Camp Atterbury, Ind., where soldiers get their final training before mobilization. There, Sgt. First Class Matthew Kelly was preparing to leave on his fourth overseas deployment. Kelly says that his new mission brings a mixed sense of closure and anxiety.
"For those guys that, this is their first time," he says, "definitely keep your heads down, be observant and make sure you're always aware of your surroundings."
Sgt. Kelly says the transition to active duty has been fairly easy because he already had a full-time job with the National Guard. That's not the case for most, who typically train part-time and have civilian jobs.
For Company Commander Janee Wilson, the Iraq mission will be her first tour overseas — and a stark contrast to her regular job, as an operations manager for T-Mobile in Nashville.
"The language is different, the lingo, the talk, the type of training we do," she says, "you know: hands-on, weapons, different types of vehicles."
Wilson has heard from others about what to expect in Iraq, but is eager to see the mission through.
"I'm ready to go ahead and get it over with and come back home," she says. "I am looking forward to it, though. I've been in the military for 11 years, so this is my first time to really kind of test myself."
The Department of Defense coordinated a recent trip to Camp Atterbury so civilian employers could see some of the Guard's live-fire training exercises. Norman Norris is a supervisor for Louisville's Department of Corrections, which has several employees serving in the Guard. He says it's important for employers to understand what soldiers are sacrificing when they deploy.
"When his orders come through, he's got enough to deal with already. He doesn't need to worry about 'Am I going to have a job when I get back? Am I going to have my position when I get back?'" Norris says. "That stuff's automatic. There's no questions asked. There's not a general attitude of 'Oh, he's gone again.' No. He's not going to Disney World, he's not going to California; he's going to a war zone."
That kind of support is a relief to Sgt. Edwin O'Bannon, who has worked at Louisville's jail for less than a year. He wants that job to be there when he returns.
"Especially being an MP in the Army, and then I go to my civilian life and the garrison side still carries over," he says. "Everyone has their same structure of how they want business run, and getting business conducted. It's a great atmosphere to work in."
Finding the right balance between civilian and military life affects Guard members even at high levels. Commander Col. Scott Campbell of the 149th Brigade has a civilian job at defense contractor Northrop Grumman. But he's spent five of the past 10 years on active duty.
"And it is really hard to say, 'I'm going to be super-successful in both careers,'" he says. "Because it's almost like you gotta commit all your energy to one or the other."
Although the Iraq drawdown is expected to wrap up by the end of December, the total mission for the Kentucky contingent could last up to 12 months.