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Sunday, February 1, 2004



A Soldier’s Story

First Sgt. Robert Jennings


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First Sgt. Robert Jennings, of the 25th Infantry Division (Light), was among the 4,000 Schofield Barracks soldiers who began a year-long deployment to Iraq last month.

Before leaving, Jennings volunteered to write a weekly diary about his experiences for the Star-Bulletin.

"It is an honor to write this article for the people of Hawaii, on behalf of the soldiers of Alpha Company, 1-21 Infantry Battalion, 25th Infantry Division Light, stationed at Schofield Barracks," Jennings wrote.

His diary, "A soldier's story," starts today and will run in the Sunday Star-Bulletin.

Jennings, a 20-year Army veteran, has been assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., Fort Campbell, Ky., Fort Lewis, Wash., and Camp Casey in South Korea. He is now on his second tour at Schofield Barracks. He has been deployed to Panama, Japan, Germany, Egypt and Thailand.

As the first sergeant of Alpha Company, Jennings is in charge of 135 soldiers who are in Kuwait and soon headed for Iraq.

"I hope to bring the people of Hawaii the side of the war not too many see, the soldier's story," he said.



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COURTESY PHOTO
On Day Three in Kuwait, soldiers were taken to a range two hours away from their camp to test-fire all of their weapons.


Preparation is key
as isle soldiers hit Iraq


All through November and December preparations began for our deployment. Soldiers were prevented from getting out of the Army and changing duty assignments to maintain unit strengths for our upcoming deployment. This upset a few because they had already made plans for leaving the Army or duty at another station.

From a leadership standpoint, this was a blessing. We had not received many soldiers to replace the ones leaving because of all the units already deployed around the world. After the initial shock of being held from moving, they all seemed to understand the importance of the Army's decision.

We completed an intense training cycle that included many lessons learned from units already in Iraq. Land mine training taught by our engineer battalion seemed to be the one most soldiers paid special attention to. Every light infantry soldier fears this threat.

With our training complete and soldiers feeling the mental strain of the upcoming deployment, it was time to receive the reward I think every soldier enjoys the most: leave. Every soldier was granted 15 days to visit home. We had soldiers stretched from Massachusetts to Micronesia.

Soldiers returned to work refreshed and full of stories about family and friends. The focus now was to get a final push with the last few remaining tasks prior to deployment. One of those was medical screening and the dreaded vaccinations. Medical screening eliminated a few soldiers from deploying because of problems not diagnosed or prior problems that had not been treated.

Still, Alpha Company, a little more depleted, was ready to get the deployment started. As the senior enlisted member of my company, I can honestly say we are trained and ready to accomplish the mission at hand.

Departure

(Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2030 hours) All the key leaders in the company have assembled and the commander has gone to get a deployment update from higher headquarters.

Looking out my office window, I see the soldiers trickling in from the barracks, and arriving with wives and girlfriends. I see a few children clutching on to their daddies. As I carry my equipment downstairs, I notice the wives are trying to be strong. I can see the tears in their eyes, but not on their cheeks.

Helen Cantrell, six months pregnant, tells me to take care of myself and the soldiers. Brandi Becker gives a smile to the soldiers. Both their husbands are ready to deploy for a year.

(Jan. 20, 2100 hours) Time to tell all the family members to leave the area. This was an emotional task, and an emotional event. The tears for most soldiers and dependents could now no longer be held back. This is when it is realized this may be the last time we ever see each other -- the last time a child gets to hold his father's hand, the last kiss from the man that was vowed forever -- this must be what they mean by "for better or for worse."

(Jan. 20, 2005 hours) I call roll and all are present. It will be a long night of making sure all equipment is drawn, accounted for and loaded.

(Jan. 21, 0535 hours) Soldiers are getting settled in their seats. Some immediately go to sleep. Our plane lifts off the runway at Hickam, and not a sound from the inside of the aircraft.

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COURTESY PHOTO
At Camp Virginia in Kuwait, 65 soldiers were packed into tents that sleep about 50 to 60 comfortably. There is a shower trailer with 14 showers, and about 40 porta-potties in the area.



In Kuwait

Well, we have arrived in Kuwait. Twenty-eight hours, 41 with time-zone difference. Most of the soldiers are extremely jetlagged. The flight, as long as it was, wasn't all that bad. We went through three crews on four legs. From the flight line, we were whisked away to the reception camp where we were given about two hours of briefings, ammunition, and a couple of bottles of water. From there we were put on buses for the two- to three-hour bus ride to Camp Virginia. Most of the soldiers tried to get in a few more hours of sleep, but I noticed my younger ones wide eyed -- a little unsure of just where they were and what they had gotten themselves into.

We arrived at Camp Virginia just as the sun began to rise across the desert. This was Alpha Company's first look at the terrain. Although we have seven soldiers who have been here before, most are making their first trip. You can see for miles in every direction, not a building in sight.

This is great contrast to the beauty of the mountain backdrop of Schofield Barracks. Just as I got everyone off the bus, I heard one soldier ask where the smoking area was. It had been a few hours since the last one. I pointed to the porta-potties and about 30 guys moved out.

We moved into our sleeping tents and soldiers started to settle in. We packed 65 soldiers in tents that sleep about 50 to 60 comfortably. There is a shower trailer with 14 showers, and about 40 porta-potties in the area. Camp Virginia is equipped with all the amenities. It has a small trailer PX, dining facility, gym, Internet café with about 20 computers, AT&T phones, sandwich shop, chapel, and a small trinket shop. Most of the time there is a wait of about one to two hours for the phones because we are here with a few thousand soldiers. One of the soldiers complained about the wait and was reminded of soldiers in past conflicts who would have killed to call home.

Over the next few days we received all the equipment we packed back in December. On day three we were taken to a range two hours away to test-fire all of our weapons. Most of us couldn't figure out why we rode for two hours because it looked just like the camp. We were greeted with a dense fog on the way back that added about an hour and a half to the return trip.

The next day was like Christmas.

There are a few things that all soldiers look forward to: payday, time off, blowing stuff up and new equipment. Today we were issued new rifle scopes, machine gun scopes, ceramic plates for our ballistic vests, an assortment of gadgets and widgets for our machine guns and rifles and, best of all, each soldier was issued Wiley X sunglasses.

Iraq bound

We have received our marching orders north and will begin soon. Some will make the four-day vehicle convoy, and the rest will fly a couple of days later. After finding out he was moving by convoy, Staff Sgt. Robert Ryder started getting his men and equipment ready. He wasn't happy to be moving north this way. Improvised Explosive Devices are the biggest threat. These are old munitions rigged by the enemy to explode either by remote or wire detonation. As anyone who watches TV knows, this has been the biggest threat for coalition forces over the last few months. I watched as he told his soldiers the news. There were mixed emotions. But after all the leaders started barking orders they all seemed to start focusing on the task at hand.

Over the next few days, there was one common theme throughout Alpha Company: rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. Every soldier must know what to do no matter what the enemy throws at him. There are a million scenarios, so we try to focus on the most common and most likely. We are ready.

Sgt. Renato Leite is still worried about his wife, who is over nine months pregnant. He says his son must be as stubborn as he is. His worry is starting to show as this is their first child. His wife is in the Navy and is stationed in Key West, Fla. He was supposed to leave the Army this summer, but was held for the deployment.

Alpha Company is 90 percent prepared to move into Iraq. All we have to do is draw a few more vehicles and add some armor plating to another. The soldier's morale is still extremely high and you can see the truth in all their eyes. We are ready. We know we have a difficult mission and we are very anxious to get started so we can return home.

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