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For transformed citizen soldiers, bin Laden's legacy lives on

Published May 2, 2011 8:46 pm

War • Utah Guard plans to fight on in Iraq, Afghanistan.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Draper • The Afghan quagmire will continue. The effort to secure the American homeland will rumble forward. And the war on terror — a decade-old, vaguely defined quest that has no front, no singular enemy and no definable point of victory — will not end, even if the world's most wanted terrorist is dead.

So at the headquarters of the Utah National Guard — even as soldiers exchanged high fives, hugs, and battle stories in the wake of one of the most anticipated kills in the history of modern warfare — it is business as usual. There are, after all, hundreds of Utah's citizen soldiers still deployed across the globe. Thousands more are lined up for their next tour of duty — for some it will be the second, third and even fourth time through a war zone since that terrible day when the world changed.

And, oh, did it change — for these men and women much more than most others. Up until Sept. 11, 2001, the National Guard had been a reserve force of artillery soldiers, intelligence specialists and combat engineers, among others. Few of them had ever actually seen combat. Not since Korea had a Utah-based Guard unit deployed to war.



Now scores have. To the deserts of Iraq. To the mountains of Afghanistan. To Germany, where Utah Guard members treated the wounded. To Kuwait, where they maintained their comrades' logistical lifelines.

Eighty percent of the Utah Guard's current members have completed at least one deployment.

Jerry Acton figures the photograph in his office explains the paradigmatic shift better than he ever could. The picture is of three soldiers huddled into the middle truck on a combat convoy. A hand-drawn sign in the truck's window reads, "One weekend a month my ass!"

"When I joined the Guard, that's what it was — a weekend a month and two weeks in the summer," says Acton, who led the Utah Guard's I-Corps Field Artillery in Afghanistan. "Now we've got guys with four deployments under their belts. We've transitioned. And it has been a challenge."

As active-duty forces were scattered thin across South Asia and the Middle East, the Guard was transformed from a strategic reserve to an operational military force. "Nowadays, when you're in the field, it's really hard to recognize a Guard unit versus a regular Army unit," said Gen. Jeff Burton, who led the 1457th Engineering Battalion to war in Iraq in 2003.

In the years that followed, Utah-based soldiers hunted Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, interrogated prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and helped pull Saddam Hussein from a spider hole in northern Iraq.

Those roles had little to do with whether Osama bin Laden was alive or dead. Yet for nearly a decade he remained a taunting symbol of elusive victory — and never more so then when a fellow soldier would return home in a flag-draped casket.

Among 59 Utahns who have been killed in the nation's still-ongoing wars are Guard members Alan Rogers and Scott Lundell, who died in Afghanistan; and Ronald Wood and Brandon Thomas, who were killed in Iraq.

Lundell was in Acton's unit in Afghanistan. "I've thought about him a lot today," Acton said. "All of the people who gave their lives, who stood up and represented us all, it feels good to have this moment for the people that we've lost."

But it's only a moment. Acton knows that more blood will be shed. More will be called upon to fight, to sacrifice, to die. More will be wounded, just like Utah Guard member Dan Gubler, who lost his left arm in an explosion in Iraq; and Layne Morris, who lost his right eye in a grenade attack in Afghanistan.

Horrible as such casualties are, those are the types of sacrifices commonly associated with war — the ones the nation has long been prepared to deal with, albeit clumsily at times. Far less considered are the physiological consequences of simply living in a war zone. Guard soldier Casey Malmborg left for his tour of duty in Iraq as a healthy and fit 19-year-old. He breathed in the toxic air at Balad Air Base — where a massive burn pit sent smoke and fumes into the air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — and when he returned home he couldn't even pass his military physical fitness test. "It was like I was suffocating," he recalled last year. He is among thousands of soldiers who believe they may have been sickened in Iraq or Afghanistan — and whose injuries do not automatically rate compensation by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But it is the psychological consequences of these wars that may, in the end, be the signature wound of the era. Here at the Utah Guard headquarters, transition assistance officer Bart Davis works overtime to persuade a growing army of troubled citizen soldiers to accept help for the all-too-often unseen wounds of war. He doesn't win every battle: Over the past decade, Guard leaders — like their active-duty counterparts — have dealt with a surge in suicides often associated with post-traumatic stress and the other strains of service in a time of war. At least 10 Utah Guard members took their own lives between 2005 and 2010.

Still others have suffered in even less recognizable ways. When Joe Lappi's marriage fell apart during his tour of duty in Iraq in 2005, he didn't have to look far to find a sympathetic ear: His roommate was going through the same thing, as were many other soldiers from the Utah-based 222nd Field Artillery. When Scott Sill returned from his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he felt the pressure of trying to reintegrate at his civilian job among workers who didn't seem to understand why he'd gone missing for a year, only to return to his same position and — in accordance with federal law — with the seniority of someone who had never left. "It was as though I'd been away on a vacation," he said. "And I can assure you it was no vacation."

James Ryan, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, cracked a beer when he heard the news of bin Laden's death on Sunday night. The intelligence specialist and Pashto linguist said it felt good to believe that — in some way — he might have contributed to the terror leader's ultimate demise.

"But that's all it was — a beer," Ryan said. "This is a great moral victory for us. But we can't lose focus on what the objective is. Everything we've been doing, we've still got to do."

Ryan's first marriage fell apart under the strains of his first two deployments. "And I see the impact that long deployments have on other families," he said. As a senior enlisted man, responsible for junior soldiers, he worries about the challenges military members have and will continue to have "because they just don't know how to reintegrate."

The deaths, the injuries, the suicides, the job problems, the failed marriages — Osama bin Laden was not directly responsible for any of that. And some will argue that a different response to his crimes — and a different approach to caring for those who have served at war — would have yielded far fewer challenges for the Guard and its soldiers.

Nonetheless, there is little debate: The spark that lit this inferno was bin Laden's.

He may be gone. But his legacy burns on.

mlaplante@sltrib.com

 

 

 

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