Sunday, July 18, 2004

Brig. Gen. Joseph Chaves, commander of the Hawaii Army National Guard's 29th Infantry Brigade, discusses his unit's preparation for a year in Iraq in front of a memorial stone that lists the names of the 29 soldiers who died in Vietnam the last time the brigade was called to active duty, in 1968.

Guard leader
readies for war

Aiea High School grad Joseph
Chaves will lead the 29th Infantry
Brigade as it deploys to Iraq

Joseph Chaves was only an 18-year-old junior at Aiea High School 36 years ago when the 29th Infantry Brigade was called up to fight in Vietnam.

"We had couple of teachers who were mobilized with the brigade," said Chaves, now a one-star brigadier general who commands that same Hawaii Army National Guard unit. "There also were several seniors who had joined the guard and were mobilized shortly after graduation."

Now, Chaves, who has spent his 34 years in uniform as a citizen soldier, is at the forefront as he prepares the 29th Infantry Brigade for another war.

His oldest son, 1st Lt. Joseph Chaves, is already in Iraq as a member of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the Army's first Stryker unit. The 19-ton Stryker combat vehicles are the Army's latest. Beginning next year, the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks will begin converting to this novel fighting force.

On May 13, 1968, when 214 officers, 23 warrant officers and 3,101 enlisted soldiers reported to active duty at Schofield Barracks, they faced a major transition. Even the rifles they had been using as reservists were antiquated and brigade members had to qualify with M-16s, replacing the World War II M-1s they had become accustomed to during monthly drills.

But the entire brigade also never went to Vietnam. Only 1,500 of the citizen soldiers mobilized in 1968 were sent into combat. Twenty-nine were killed.

Next year, the entire brigade moves out to Iraq. "We're all going," said Chaves, 55.

Since 1995, the 29th Brigade has been one of the nation's 15 elite Army National Guard enhanced readiness brigades. This means that the 29th was trained and equipped to deploy within 90 days of a federal call-up. It was first in line when new equipment were issued to reservists.

However, a 1999 U.S. General Accounting Office report said these 15 brigades had difficulty in maintaining training and personal readiness goals. Although 29th Brigade was cited as one of three in the GAO report able to meet training objectives, Chaves said there are still personnel shortages.

When the brigade was alerted on July 2, Chaves estimated that its strength was almost 3,400 soldiers. "But the process over the next few months in identifying soldiers who are nondeployable," Chaves added, "will result in a bit of a falling out. We expect to go in with 3,500 soldiers."

Chaves said Hawaii Army Guard officials are now in the process of filling vacancies in the 29th Brigade by first pulling in soldiers from other Hawaii units and then turning to other mainland reserve units.

Another challenge facing Chaves is commanding a unit that not only includes an Army Reserve unit -- the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry -- but also spans three states -- Oregon, California and Minnesota -- and the islands of American Samoa, Guam and Saipan.

"We're the only enhanced brigade in the Army that is not only multi-state," Chaves said, "but also multi-compo (component). It makes us special."

The last time all these units worked under a single brigade commander, then-Brig Gen. Dennis Kamimura, was in 1999 at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

But over the past year, Chaves said, he has worked to meld a cohesive senior leadership by pulling in the key officers from the mainland and Pacific island units, making them work together at exercises at Schofield Barracks in October, Japan in January, Fort Polk in March and as late as May at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

"When we go," Chaves said, "the whole team will be there."

His biggest concern are the families and the loved ones the citizen soldiers will leave behind for up to 15 months.

"I am not worried about the training," Chaves said. "I am more concerned of the families because of the short time between being alerted and being mobilized."

The 29th Brigade still hasn't been officially told when it will be mobilized and required to report to an Army post for pre-deployment training. That order could comes as early as mid-August.

Chaves said he expects that his soldiers from Oregon, Minnesota, California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and Saipan will mobilize at Schofield Barracks, where they will spend anywhere from 30 to 45 days.

He hopes that the following several months at Fort Bliss in Texas will help the soldiers, many of whom are accustomed only to tropical climates, to acclimate to frigid winter temperatures they will face in the deserts in Iraq.

"The deployment to Fort Bliss," said Chaves, "is a good choice to prepare us for what we will be going through next year. It can get cold in Texas."

The 29th Brigade also is scheduled to train at Fort Polk as a full combat brigade just before it deploys to Iraq.

"It (Fort Polk) has training areas," Chaves said, "that have villages and towns to simulate what we will be seeing in Iraq. There also are forward operating bases set up just like they are in Iraq."

Chaves said he has been in contact with Brig. Gen. Oscar Hilman, who commands the Washington Army National Guard's 81st Enhanced Brigade, which the 29th Brigade will replace.

Hilman and other Army commanders have told Chaves that "marksmanship training is the most important thing individual soldiers need to know. When you identify the target, you have to get that shot that will disable it. You have to do it faster than the enemy."

The number of National Guard brigades in Iraq next year will grow to five from three, and for the first time in Iraq a National Guard division headquarters from New York will command active-duty brigades. Overall, National Guard and Reserve forces will make up 42 percent or 43 percent of the total force in Iraq. The Pentagon last week reported that the total National Guard and Reserve on active duty was 156,460.

Hawaii National Guard


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