The commander of the 116th Brigade Combat Team in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart, returned to Boise on Thursday and reflected on an 18-month mission he said brought "tremendous progress" to Northern Iraq.
Speaking to The Idaho Statesman at his Boise home, Gayhart said that "all Idahoans ought to be very proud of their National Guard."
The 116th left for the Middle East in November 2004, and with it came reservists who were also doctors, lawyers and police officers — life experience that separated Guard members from their active-duty counterparts, Gayhart said.
"They just made a tremendous difference there with their expertise," he said.
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The 4,000-member 116th, which included about 1,800 Idahoans as well as troops from Oregon, Montana, Utah, North Dakota, New Jersey, Maryland and other states, was deployed for 18 months and spent more than 10 months in Iraq. The 116th turned over responsibility for northern Iraq to the Army's 101st Airborne Division Nov. 1. Soldiers are returning to their homes through November.
In a region actively repressed by Saddam Hussein, the 116th not only fought insurgents but also worked to rebuild shattered infrastructure and local government — what Gayhart called a "two-handed fight." Gayhart said he was especially proud of the soldiers' handling of constitutional voting last month. He noted that there was no violence against voters in either of the provinces for which the 116th was responsible.
The job done by the 116th on both those fronts is "unequaled at this point by any other units," he said.
Gayhart said the toughest part of the mission was losing soldiers — 11 members of the 116th died during the deployment, five in combat.
"One soldier is obviously too many, but this brigade suffered less casualties than any other I'm aware of," he said.
Gayhart said he wishes he had done more work ahead of time to understand the different ethnic and religious groups he had to deal with in the region.
"It's a big mosaic, a big puzzle, so it's a very challenging assignment to keep them together, to keep them heading toward democracy," he said.
In meeting with local government, tribal and religious leaders, Gayhart learned what a wide gulf there is between American and Iraqi culture. But he said his soldiers made a connection with Iraqis.
"Many Iraqis were begging us, tears in their eyes, not to leave Iraq, not to leave Kirkuk," he said.
Iraq was a lesson in how dear America's freedoms are, which some Americans take for granted, Gayhart said.
"There's still tyrants and dictators out there, and the world has not learned from its mistakes," he said.
Before the 116th left for Iraq, a military expert at the University of Idaho told an audience he was worried the Guard would be
ill-prepared for battle. Gayhart said the 116th's experience in Iraq has shown those worries to be unfounded.
"We were certainly prepared, and that was such an absurd statement," Gayhart said.
Gayhart will continue in his current position until sometime early next year, when he will become assistant adjutant general-Army, putting all Idaho Army National Guard units under his command. That will make him the second highest-ranking member of the Idaho Army National Guard.