Special Reports

Commander says 116th should be home by Christmas

KIRKUK, Iraq — Families of Idaho Army Guard members deployed on a mission expected to last a year probably won't have to ship presents to Iraq this Christmas, the commander of the 116th said.

Rumors have circulated among soldiers and families that the 116th Brigade Combat Team serving in northern Iraq since December 2004 will be home by Thanksgiving.

That may be too optimistic, said Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart.

"I think it would be unfair to give the expectation of being home by Thanksgiving, but I think there's a good possibility of being home by Christmas," he said.

The 4,300-member 116th is made of up of soldiers from about 20 states. It's headquartered at Boise's Gowen Field, and the 1,700 soldiers from Idaho make up its largest contingent.

Gayhart sat down with the Idaho Statesman at FOB Warrior at Kirkuk Regional Air Base recently to talk about the brigade's first three months in Iraq, the value of having mature citizen-soldiers to help Kirkuk rebuild its community and its economy, and how success in turning the Suleimaniyah province over to Iraqi security forces will permit him to better use soldiers elsewhere in northern Iraq.

Soldiers from the 116th are helping to improve security in the Kirkuk region and teaching the Iraqis how to manage their own country.

"Our No. 1 mission is to train and develop security forces in our province so they can take care of the security of the region," Gayhart said.

Soldiers from the 116th are the backbone of Kirkuk's police and army. But the goal is for soldiers to work themselves out of a job.

"It's going to be a work in progress. We're going to turn more and more duties over to the Iraqi police department and Iraqi army," Gayhart said.

Attacks against U.S. troops in the Kirkuk region are infrequent compared with other areas of Iraq. But Iraqi police are routinely attacked and killed, and insurgents can freely roam in some rural areas outside Kirkuk.

But security is improving, Gayhart said. He pointed out that the 116th has turned the Suleimaniyah province in northeast Iraq over to the Iraqis, which will allow him to redirect troops to other areas, like the insurgent hotbed in Hawijah west of Kirkuk. That's the area where the 116th has lost two soldiers — one from Montana and another from Oregon.

The Guard members' varied skills are especially helpful in a region where the mission includes rebuilding communities. But challenges are many. Some police stations don't have phones or enough radios and guns for officers. Sometimes officers don't have gas for their patrol vehicles. All money gets cycled through Baghdad, and sometimes it's slow to reach other parts of Iraq.

"Those resources are coming in, but in my opinion, it's not happening at the speed they should be coming in," Gayhart said. "Everything is still centrally controlled; that's traditionally how things are done in Iraq."

Iraqis have also had to change their attitudes because the country's new government is just getting started and can't meet all the needs and demands. Citizens have to rebuild their economy without a socialist government making the decisions.

"They were all subsidized by the government previously and they didn't have to work for a living," Gayhart said.

The country lacks basic infrastructure, such as sewers and adequate water systems. Ironically, the Kirkuk area has 40 percent of Iraq's oil and rampant gas shortages. The area has no oil refinery. Gayhart said that will eventually change.

"It won't happen on our watch, but it will happen in the future," he said.

Overall, 116th morale is good. But not perfect. A common complaint among soldiers in the 116th is slow promotions.

"I don't really think it's a significant issue right now," Gayhart said. "There's been significant promotions made here."

Some soldiers are doing the job of a higher-ranking soldier but cannot be promoted to that rank. Part of the problem is manpower: Some 116th soldiers remain part of the unit but did not deploy. The 116th is allowed only so many people in each rank. If those slots are filled, others can't be promoted.

In other instances, a regular Army soldier fills slots in the 116th. Gayhart said it's often quicker to transfer in another soldier than to promote within. Sometimes, he said, soldiers are doing the job of a higher rank but have not met all the criteria for promotion.

Another common complaint is about equipment. Some Humvees are missing some armor, such as on gun turrets that protect the rooftop machine-gunner. Some soldiers don't have night sights on their weapons.

There may be some instances of that, he said, but added: "I don't think there's a significant issue (in) equipping us."

One of the problems is the 116th's conversion from an armored unit that relies on tanks and other armored vehicles to a unit that uses Humvees and foot soldiers to accomplish its military missions.

More Humvees are on the way, Gayhart said. Some shortages, such as night sights, are Army-wide and not unique to the 116th.

"They can't make them fast enough," Gayhart said.

To comment, contact reporter Roger Phillips at local@ idahostatesman.com.