CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAIT - They deployed in March and came to call themselves "The New York 39," but the New York Army National Guard Soldiers put their range of skills and experience to work in Kuwait, yielding lasting results for ongoing Army missions in the area.
"We helped facilitate the shift from Operation New Dawn to the enduring footprint of U.S. forces in Kuwait," said Lt. Col. Robert J. Bready, the officer-in-charge of the thirty-nine 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) troops, who returned home in late November. This included partnering with Kuwaiti military forces, added Bready, a Highland, N.Y., resident.
Most of the Soldiers belong to Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 27th IBCT, which was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. But changing needs within Central Command led to a change in missions for brigade units earlier this year, and the 39 Soldiers deployed to Kuwait.
Assigned to Area Support Group (ASG) Kuwait, the Soldiers found themselves working in a variety of roles and missions, including operations and plans, base defense, logistics, personnel, training, law enforcement and intelligence. The Soldiers returned home in November.
"They looked at people's talents and found ways to support ASG Kuwait," said Maj. Robert Romano, of Freeville, N.Y., who worked in Host Nation Affairs.
Master Sgt. Melissa Sanzo, of Niskayuna, N.Y., credited commanders and leaders with identifying the Soldiers' skills and finding roles for everyone.
"They really pulled us in and placed us in areas where we could be best utilized," said Sanzo, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) in charge of the Base Defense Liaison Team (BDLT).
Soldiers like Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Huard, who deployed to Afghanistan with the brigade in 2008, also picked up some new skills in Kuwait.
"I learned a lot about operations, which I like," said Huard, of Minoa, N.Y.
The main business of the Base Defense Liaison Team was the security of U.S.
bases, and any place U.S. forces traveled – for work or leisure – in Kuwait. The team ranged all over the country, evaluating defenses, helping train security personnel and arranging for the installation and movement of force-protection structures, like the bases' omnipresent concrete barriers.
"We're the ones who move those," said 1st Lt. Teofilo Espinal, the officer-in-charge of the BDLT and a Queens, N.Y., resident.
The threat level is high all over Kuwait, and force-protection needs vary according to changes in base infrastructure and populations, Espinal said.
To meet those shifting needs, the team planned and executed the movement of hundreds of barriers and other force protection structures, he said.
Team members once provided some of these structures for a base entry-control point (ECP) which had no force-protection assets at all, and routinely evaluated tourist areas to ensure they were safe for Soldiers to visit, Espinal said.
"It took us a little while to learn everything," he said. "We ended up fixing many force-protection issues that had been here for years."
Though the team faced a steep learning curve, subject-matter experts in their ranks – Soldiers trained as military police officers, security specialists and communication specialists – stepped up to fill the knowledge gaps, he added.
"This work is multi-faceted," Espinal said. "You need to have people who know many different things."
On most missions, team members acted like construction foremen, directing contractors where to place barriers, said Staff Sgt. Miguel Santiago, of West Orange, N.J. In one memorable mission, they replaced an old wooden tower with a stronger, air-conditioned one for the security personnel, Santiago and Sgt.
Daniel Ruperd recalled.
"They were all very happy," said Ruperd, of Watertown, N.Y.
Along with quizzing security personnel about things like security procedures, team members created and conducted force-protection exercises to train them, Santiago said. In some of the exercises he played a terrorist, complete with a fake beard, he added.
"You get arrested a lot, which is what you want to happen," Santiago said, smiling. "You feel rewarded. You see that you're keeping the place safe."
In the larger scheme of things, their evaluations helped commanders make risk-management decisions and prioritize force-protection assets, Sanzo said.
They worked with multiple Kuwaiti and United States agencies, and helped facilitate information-sharing among them, she added.
She had seven years of force protection experience when she joined the BDLT, but the team was also lucky to have Soldiers with training experience and creativity.
"We have a smart group of guys," Sanzo said.
While some of the Soldiers filled individual positions at bases in Kuwait, others started working for operations and plans, monitoring all activity within ASG Kuwait's area of responsibility (AOR).
"We're like a brigade operations center," said Operations Sgt. Maj. Timothy Casey, of Harford, N.Y. "We're involved in every aspect of this AOR."
Huard was one of the center's battle NCOs. He generally worked an eight-hour shift, and performed a number of duties, including processing intelligence information and tracking unit movements, Huard said.
"It's not as hard as Afghanistan," said Huard, remembering three-hour patrols followed by six-hours of guard duty there. "You're more likely to get mortared in Afghanistan, depending on where you are."
In Kuwait, Huard learned the ins and outs of operations, an area he had little experience in. The key to success in the operations center is establishing a battle rhythm and knowing what happens and when it happens, Huard said.
"There's a lot of moving pieces," he explained. "Everybody keeps things moving smoothly. Everybody works hard."
That was especially true at the beginning of the deployment, when troop rotations stretched operations thin and they were tasked to help finish and launch the new operations center, Huard recalled.
"There were a lot of growing pains, trying to figure out what we were doing," he said. But they kept up the good communications with each other, cooperating through good and bad times, Huard said.
As in the BDLT, knowledgeable troops in the New York 39 stepped up to help.
Among other things, Sgt. Benjamin Roden and Pfc. Richard Altermann, who are junior enlisted Soldiers and "computer whizzes," helped link tactical computers to several large highly-visible television screens in the operations center, Huard explained.
"They were the main driving force, because they know that stuff," he said.
First Lt. Chelsea Gunter and other Soldiers worked behind the scenes as well, taking on the task of updating ASG Kuwait's plans, policies, standard operating procedures. In addition, they created ASG Kuwait's CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High Explosive) management plan, Gunter said.
"There was no CBRNE management plan, now there is," said Gunter, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
They also helped ASG Kuwait prepare for training exercises, reviewed and straightened out contracts, put new contracts in place and ensured things were done legally, she recalled. She learned a lot about the planning process and force-protection standards, Gunter said.
"Before this, I'd never been involved in the planning process at this level," she said, adding that ASG Kuwait is now better prepared for emergency situations. "I have high hopes for the continuity."
The work was very cerebral and involved planning and coordinating with many different agencies and directorates, Gunter said. Her desk was the messiest at Camp Arifjan, she joked.
Despite the heat, the deployment was a great experience, complete with many home comforts like ice cream and movies, Gunter said. Sanzo, Santiago and Huard expressed similar sentiments.
"I don't know how anybody else feels, but I'm really proud of the work we've done here," Huard said.