Combat vets look back on Strike Brigade deployment
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea -- A few months into their historic first operational deployment from South Korea, many of the Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team "Strike Brigade" were asking their commander the same question: where are we going next?
"I got asked that question every day," said Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, who commanded the 2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team during its wartime deployment from South Korea to Iraq. "Most of our families were scattered across the U.S. since we deployed from Korea."
According to Patton, not only did his Soldiers have to train for a completely different mission, close three installations near the Korean Demilitarized Zone and deploy to Iraq's "Sunni Triangle" on short notice, they also didn't know where their journey would end.
"We finally found out that we were going to be moving to Fort Carson, Colo.," said Patton, who is originally from Kingston, Penn. "The entire team at Fort Carson did an outstanding job of welcoming us there."
In 16 months, Strike Brigade Soldiers went from defending South Korea from aggression south of the world's most heavily guarded border, to fighting insurgents inside Iraq's Al Anbar Province, to serving on Fort Carson.
Patton, who is currently special assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, shepherded the brigade through the U.S. Army's historic fist operational deployment from the Korean Peninsula.
The Strike Brigade deployment included the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Air Assault); 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment (Air Assault); 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment; 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized); 44th Engineer Battalion; 2nd Forward Support Battalion and elements from other battalions and regiments.
In Iraq, the Strike Brigade was part of the 1st Marine Division, and later the 2nd Marine Division, and it was responsible for a large section of real estate in Al Anbar Province, centered on the provincial capital of Ramadi, and bounded by Fallujah in the east and Iraqi desert in the west.
Retired Command Sergeant Maj. Marvell Dean, former senior enlisted adviser for the unit, said it took an incredible amount of teamwork to deploy the brigade on short notice.
"The teamwork across the entire (Korean Peninsula) is what got the deployment off to a good start," said Dean, a native of Oklahoma City, who retired in 2011, after 34 years in the U.S. Army, and now works at Fort Campbell, Ky. "Many (Soldiers) were close to leaving Korea and reuniting with family and a new assignment. Once the news of our deployment was confirmed, many volunteered to remain with the unit before the Stop Loss order came down.
"The environment we trained in was totally different than what we fought in Iraq, but there were no complaints," said Dean. "I have always been amazed at the resilience and bravery of our Soldiers when fighting to protect each other."
He said enabling the Iraqi elections in 2005, was the brigade's biggest accomplishment during the deployment.
The former commander of the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment "Steel Battalion," Retired Col. John Fant, said not only did his field artillery battalion conduct counter fire missions to suppress or destroy enemy mortars but it also took on non-traditional missions like base security, combat patrols and route security.
"One highlight was how the unit embraced the variety of the missions. The Soldiers really demonstrated flexibility and resiliency in handling the change from focusing on a known enemy in North Korea to an elusive enemy all around us," said Fant, a native of Independence, Va., who retired from the U.S. Army in 2013, and now runs his family's cattle business.
The Strike Brigade also had to transform its air assault battalions into motorized units.
Col. Justin Gubler commanded one of those units, the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Air Assault) "First Rock," during the deployment, and he said the battalion started training right after being notified of the deployment.
Gubler described the surreal nature of training for a war in the desert during the middle of the monsoon season in South Korea.
"In three short weeks after being alerted, I had my commanders and staff huddled in a GP medium [tent] on an old air strip in a monsoon squall," said Gubler, a Honolulu native who now serves at the Training and Doctrine Command. "We were listening in on a 2/4 Marine update of a battle they had just finished fighting in Ar Ramadi.
"They had fought in 138-degree heat and had a number of heat casualties as well as wounded," said Gubler. "We were thoroughly soaked and standing in six inches of water flowing through the tent."
Gubler said his battalion's biggest accomplishment was winning an intense 11-week battle for Ar Ramadi from a combat outpost on the eastern side of the city.
"This was the foundation for success the rest of the year -- the national elections, building the second largest source network in Iraq and setting conditions for the 'Sunni Awakening' were the most significant," said Gubler.
Gubler said the homecoming at Fort Carson was a memorable experience.
"I remember my five-year-old daughter hugging me and not wanting to let go," said Gubler.
Today, with the 10th anniversary of the Strike Brigade deployment in August, many of the Soldiers who participated in that deployment have returned to South Korea.
Eighth Army Chief of Staff Col. Tommy Mize, who commanded the 44th Engineer Battalion during the deployment, said the high number of seasoned Strike Brigade combat veterans in South Korea today demonstrates the strength of the Republic of Korea-U.S. Alliance.
"People who have served in Korea understand the importance of the alliance and understand what a great opportunity it is to Soldier here in Korea, professionally rewarding and also rewarding for families," said Mize, a native of Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Mize said that the alliance is so strong that many of his Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army (KATUSA) troops were disappointed because they weren't able to deploy to Iraq with their battalion.
Col. Eric Albertson, the U.S. Forces Korea command chaplain, was the Strike Brigade chaplain during the deployment.
"I had been with the brigade for the year prior to deployment, so I knew a number of the Soldiers," said Albertson, a Catholic chaplain from the Arlington, Va., Diocese. "Most often it was the result of small talk, seeing them on exercises and around Camp Hovey and Casey. What we call 'ministry of presence.'
"When we began to have losses and wounded, it was especially hard on me as well as the other chaplains and chaplain assistants," said Albertson, who is originally from Harper's Ferry, W.V. "Casualties are hard on everyone, but this was our first deployment and the first time having to deal with it.
"On a number of occasions, we even helped the medics tend to the wounds and frequently helped calm some of the guys down, as they were still very tensed up from the fighting," said Albertson.
Patton, the former 2nd BCT commander, carries a book with the 68 names of the brigade's Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq.
"They are American heroes who died defending our nation and I will never forget them and what they did for their country," said Patton.
The names of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team's fallen heroes are also etched in stone outside of Fort Carson on The Mountain Post Global War on Terrorism Fallen Soldiers Memorial, said Patton.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Charles "Hondo" Campbell, who served as the Eighth Army commander during the deployment, said the Strike Brigade served with great distinction.
"I was immensely proud of the Soldiers and leaders of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team," said Campbell. "The great majority of the Soldiers of the brigade were on one-year unaccompanied tours. They were asked to couple an extended combat deployment to an unaccompanied tour."
Campbell said the Strike Brigade answered the call of duty and excelled in a difficult mission.
"They responded as American Soldiers have always responded when their Nation called -- with courage, competence, selflessness, determination and dedication," said Campbell, a native of Shreveport, La.
"They took on a difficult mission in a demanding environment and then adapted as required to deal with a ruthless, capable and adaptive foe," said Campbell. "Their performance was extraordinary."