Nearly 3,200 Miss. soldiers prepare for Iraq

Published 11:51 pm Monday, March 16, 2009

Nearly 3,200 Mississippi Army National Guard soldiers will mobilize in May and begin their final training for a deployment to Iraq.

This will be the second deployment for hundreds of members of the 155th Brigade Combat Team, which is made up of soldiers from 49 communities in the state, from north Mississippi to the Gulf Coast. The 155th spent 2005 in Iraq in the largest deployment of Mississippi Guard soldiers since World War II.

Company B in Poplarville is part of the 155th.

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“The majority of the 155 are combat veterans so they’re walking into a scenario that they’ve seen before,” said Tim Powell, a retired colonel and Guard spokesman. “They’re much better trained soldiers now that they’re combat veterans and they can help take care of those younger soldiers that have not yet been in that situation.”

Units in the 155th have been pushing a buddy system in which the experienced soldiers pair up with those who will be going to war for the first time, said Lt. Col. Jeff Van, a battalion commander who be deploying for the fourth time in his 20-year career. Military brass also has been participating in the “Yellow Ribbon Program” used to brief soldiers and their families on how deal with situations that may arise.

Van, who is heading to Iraq for the third time, said the soldiers are ready for the missions they will face on the battlefield, but it’s the separation from family that’s hard to take.

He knows that now better than ever. This will be his first tour since his son was born.

“Your children are the ones it’s hardest to leave because they don’t understand and they can’t comprehend what’s about to happen until it’s too late and they are experiencing all those feelings,” Van said.

Fortunately, the 155th likely will spend less time in Iraq during this deployment.

Early in the Iraq war, the clock started ticking on a year deployment when the soldiers arrived in the Middle East after several months of training, said Capt. Andy Thaggard, a Guard spokesman.

Now deployments, including training, usually last about a year from the date the unit is mobilized.

Elements of the brigade have been undergoing a beefed-up version of their annual training in phases at Camp Shelby, a 136,000-acre Guard facility near Hattiesburg. The soldiers will get to spend some time with their families before the entire unit reports back to the sprawling facility in early May.

The soldiers will be honored with a farewell ceremony after the training is completed this summer. Before the last deployment the troops were allowed a few days with their families between the send-off bash and shipping out.

“Essentially for a year the brigade combat team has known that a possible mobilization was coming down the road so we’ve been able to concentrate on the individual soldier stuff that needs to be done,” Thaggard said. “The brigade commander’s No. 1 priority has been making sure that these soldiers are fit and ready to go.”

The early notification also helps the soldiers’ families prepare for the long separation.

“It benefits everyone involved,” Powell said.

The brigade’s mission is force protection, meaning they will be escorting convoys and guarding bases, among other things, Thaggard said.

Fourteen Mississippi Guardsmen in the 155th died in the last deployment. More than a dozen others attached to the brigade from other states lost their lives. The brigade came home to widespread praise. Individual medals awarded to the troops in the 155th included 123 Purple Hearts, 328 Bronze Stars, 2,000 Combat Badges and a Silver Star.