In 2003, at the height of the war in Iraq, Guntersville’s Company B, 279th Signal Battalion was mobilized for duty in Iraq.
A pretty amazing thing happened. 142 soldiers went to Iraq from the Guntersville outfit, providing communications to the 1st Infantry Division, the famous Big Red 1. All 142 survived the year-long duty and returned home to resume their lives.
Many of the men were in the 50s. Mike Porch of Union Grove got a waiver to make the trip even though he was about to turn 60.
Many of the men are retired from the Guard today. They drilled together one weekend a month for years and years. Today, they still get together one Saturday morning a month to have breakfast at the Charburger.
There were close calls in Iraq. Their bases got mortared regularly by hit and run insurgents. There were roadside bombs while they were out on convoy and even some gunfights.
They credit divine intervention for all the soldiers making it home.
We joined them at one of their recent get-togethers. Members of the group present included Richard Fry, who served in Desert Storm; Wayne Hunt, who was in the Guard 23 years; first sergeant Johnny Whisenant, who lacked just 6 months serving 40 years; James McDonough; Brent Lusk; and Jesse Swords, who served in Vietnam and got out of the Guard before the Iraq deployment.
Whisenant said what made the Iraq group special is that they had trained together for years, knew each other well and looked out for one another once they got to Iraq.
“We were like family,” he said.
Some of them were in fact family. The group that deployed included brothers, cousins, a father and son and even a husband and wife.
Soldiering is thought of as a young man’s profession, but there were 40 and 50 and even 60 year olds in the Guntersville group. Whisenant can’t help but think that’s the way wars ought to be fought.
“If you think about it, an 18 or 19 year old really hasn’t lived his life,” he said. “We had. And we were too old to run. We had to stand and fight.”
In any group, he said, you have people who excel and people who are only mediocre at best. But the Guntersville group was special.
“We had a good group of people,” he said. “That made the difference. It was a fantastic group of soldiers.”
After the group was mobilized, they did a great deal of training stateside before going to Iraq. Counting the training and the deployment, they were gone 17 months in all.
They went to Ft. Bragg first.
“I hated Ft. Bragg,” McDonough said. “I always did. Everything there was hard. I hated Ft. Bragg."
McDonough served a dual role for the Guntersville unit. He was the nuclear, biological and radiological NCO as well as the chaplain.
“We left in November and we were at Bragg for Thanksgiving,” Whisenant said.
They got leave to come home at Christmas, then they went to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, for more training.
In mid-February, they left for the Middle East. Their first 3 weeks were spent in Kuwait.
“We trained in convoy ops in Kuwait,” Whisenant said.
They were first supposed to go to the Syrian border region. But the orders changed once they got in Kuwait. The instead went to the Iranian border.
The Guntersville Guardsmen thought they would all be together in one location in Iraq. Instead, the group was broken up and sent to 10 different locations. They set up communication hubs in every location.
Those communications involved both radio and satellite.
Camps they were assigned to included Anaconda, Caldwell, Orion and others.
On the convoy in, they were following some regular Army troops.
“We got turned around in Baghdad,” Whisenant said. “But that ended up being a good thing.”
The convoys that didn’t miss the turn got shot up. The Guntersville convoys did not.
The soldiers saw some sights.
“We went to this palace where one of Saddam’s sons had lived,” Lusk said. “It looked beautiful from one side. But if you went around the other side, it was completely bombed out.”
Whisenant said Gen. Petraeus’ famous “push” took place while they were in country.
“There were 100,000 soldiers in Iraq at that time,” he said.
Daytime temps in Iraq often soared to 120 to 140 degrees, the men said. Hunt lost 40 pounds.
“Some of the guys gained weight too,” Whisenant said.
Those assigned to Anaconda enjoyed some pretty good chow, steak and lobster every Friday night. Others further out in the field ate MREs.
“We had steak and lobster, I’m not kidding,” said Vann Sims. “There was a Pizza Hut, a Burger King, a Subway.”
The chow hall had a diner feel with a short order cook, said Whisenant, who made a point of visiting every location where he had men, including Anaconda.
“It was about like going to the Huddle House,” he said.
Anaconda, which had been a large Iraqi air base, might have had better chow, but there was a trade-off. It got shelled just about every day.
There were bunkers for soldiers to get into during the mortar attacks.
Mark Whitten said he preferred just hunkering down wherever he was when an attack occurred.
“These were hit and run attacks,” he said. “It would be over before you got to the bunker.”
Whisenant recalled being in a meeting in a plywood building. They took a break and it was hit by a mortar while they were outside on their break.
The bad guys didn’t always get away with their attacks. Whisenant recalled some Special Forces guys coming to the camp.
“They had the ghillie suits and the specialized equipment,” he said. “I called them snipers. They went under the wire and they got some of them.”
While he and Lusk traveled a great deal to see their men at their posts, Whisenant was based at Caldwell. They had a field kitchen in addition to their MREs.
“You know where the field kitchen was?” he said, “right by the latrine.”
Conditions were very primitive when they arrived. But the Guntersville Guardsmen had lots of people with a variety of experience from many walks of life and they were constantly improving their living conditions.
“We had plumbers, electricians, people who could lay bricks and rock,” Whisenant said.
They didn’t have showers for a month. But the people who’d been at Caldwell previously had a partially completed shower facility.
“I told someone I thought we could get it going,” Whisenant said. “They said we could try. We had it going in 2 days.”
The active duty Army guys didn’t give the Guardsmen much benefit of the doubt, but the 279th was constantly proving itself.
While the desert was brutally hot, there was a bit of air conditioning in the camps. Some of the communications equipment would burn up without it so the equipment was air-conditioned.
The citizen soldiers were communications gurus too. They set up “Internet cafes” at some of the bases so they could talk to loved ones back home. The soldier and his significant other could see each other as they talked. That led to one funny moment the men recalled.
There’s a time difference between Iraq and the United States. One Guardsmen was talking to his wife, who was in her nightie. As their conversation ended, she stood and flipped the back of her gown up playfully. She didn’t realize a half-dozen of her husband’s fellow soldiers were sitting there with him.
Hunt said they’d never really “maxxed out” their communications equipment, but they did in Iraq. They had actually trained on their weekend drills and the training paid off once they deployed.
Company B of the 279th came home in May of 2004. A regular Army unit out of Germany replaced them. The Guardsmen tried to show their replacements some tricks and tips they’d learned during their year in Iraq.
“They said, ‘We’re regular Army, we’ve got this,’” Whisenant said.
The Guardsmen watched as several things went wrong for their replacements. One blew up a 50-caliber machine gun because he didn’t want tips on the timing and spacing of the barrel after cleaning.
Hunt noticed that they even struggled with their “line of sight” communication shots.
“They’d had cell phones in Germany and they could just call and make adjustments to the equipment that way,” Whisenant said.
“They’d not had to learn it as it was designed to be used,” Hunt said.
“One of the biggest differences was they had PFCs and E4s running the equipment,” Whisenant said. “These were guys who’d been in the Army maybe 2 years. When you went in a node with our guys, there was a staff sergeant sitting there who’d been in the Guard 30 years. We had young guys too, but there was always someone experienced with them.”
After coming home, the 279th was disbanded. The Guntersville armory today is the Marshall County EMA Center on Browns Valley Road. While the older guys retired, others went to other units.
Mark Whitten deployed again, going to Afghanistan as a medic. He’d always wanted to serve as a medic anyway.
“They actually had me teaching some medic classes over there, upgrading the training for some of our guys,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I should be doing that. I’d barely got through the training myself.”
“We were a close knit group,” Whisenant said. “We were scattered across 10 different locations, but we talked every day. We looked out for one another.”