296th Transport Co. ready for second Iraq War tour

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Brookhaven is about to make its second contribution this year tothe ongoing war in Iraq by sending a second military unit to thedesert 7,000 miles away.

The Brookhaven-headquartered 296th Transportation Co. of theArmy Reserve is scheduled to deploy around 170 men and women toIraq for a one-year tour late in 2009, said company executiveofficer Lt. Fern Freeman. The company will leave Brookhaven tobegin training for war Saturday and will not return until summer2010.

“We’re actually looking forward to it,” said Freeman, a26-year-old commander from Cofield, N.C., who will make her seconddeployment with the 296th. “There’s a positive feedback on thismission. It has been five years since we last deployed, and thesoldiers are looking forward to being called up and doing theirduty.”

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Company commander Maj. Ralph S. Arrington said 105 of thedeploying soldiers are from the Southwest Mississippi and Louisianaborder areas, and 56 of those are Brookhaven natives. The remainingtroops are cross-leveled soldiers drawn from units in five otherstates.

The company will ship out this fall after the deployment of theNational Guard’s Company E, 106th Brigade Support Battalion, aBrookhaven-headquartered unit of the state’s 155th Brigade CombatTeam. Approximately 135 of Lincoln County’s sons and daughters willjoin Operation Iraqi Freedom in the two deployments.

The late-2009 deployment will be the second one of the war forthe 296th, which was in Iraq in 2003 when the battle was young. Thecompany returned home in 2004.

Just as the war has changed in five years, so too has the296th’s mission. Freeman said the upcoming deployment will see thecompany engaging in heavy transport operations, whereas the unithas traditionally hauled bulk petroleum in medium trucks.

There’s nothing medium about the company’s new trucks. The menand women of the 296th will be using the Heavy Equipment TransportSystem (HETS), a massive truck and five-axle trailer system used totransport heavy, tracked vehicles like the M1 Abrams main battletank.

The system’s M1070 Truck Tractor weighs 20 tons, costs $1.7million and its 500-horsepower diesel engine is capable of pullinga 70-ton load, Arrington said.

“We pretty much can transport anything the military has to offerwith this unit,” he said.

Freeman said the 296th will begin training to go to war with itsnew equipment within days.

The company will depart Brookhaven for a yellow ribbon ceremonyin Moss Point on Saturday, and will fly to Fort McCoy in Wisconsinfor pre-mobilization training on June 23. The company will transferto Indiana’s Camp Atterbury on July 9 for mobilizationtraining.

“The mobilization training is what prepares you ultimately fortheater operations,” Freeman said.

Freeman acknowledged that convoy and transport operations -where soldiers face the hidden threat of roadside bombs – are nowamong the most dangerous missions in the 6-year-old Iraq War. Butwith top-notch training, armored vehicles and the experience of ahuge veteran population within the unit, she said the troops of the296th are undeterred.

“It’s the mission first – adjust fire and drive on,” Freemansaid. “There is a level of uncomfort, but it ends the day we knowwhat needs to be done. Around 90 percent of the unit are veterans… and the comfort there is we have so much experience, so much tolearn from one another.”

Arrington said a handful of the large group of veterans havebeen deployed three times before. He said the veterans’ experiencegoes beyond just know-how and translates to wisdom.

“The veterans know each deployment has its own definition, itsown face,” he said. “When they talk, they say, ‘Look, we can’ttreat this like the last conflict. We had to adjust.’ They can beflexible and adjust to the current battle rhythm, and we have to beable to do that. When you look at the news, every day there’ssomething new with Al Qaeda.”

Arrington said the 296th is “ahead of the pack,” and thesoldiers’ confidence is tangible.

“The Army Reserve is the best job in the world,” said Sgt. 1stClass Stacey Reeves, an Army Reserve career counselor. “Don’tforget about 9/11. It’s real; it did happen.”