Stars and Stripes – National Guard Brigade recounts struggles of “biblical proportions” during deployment to turbulent Middle East
Soldiers from Alpha Company, 4-118th Infantry Regiment, 30th Armored Brigade, South Carolina National Guard Combat Team, conduct tank marksmanship training while deployed to the Middle East on 4 February 2020. The unit is deployed in support of Operation Spartan Shield. (Cindi King / US Army National Guard)
The 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team deployed to the Middle East in late 2019 expects to train alongside partner nations and support operations against remnants of the Islamic State.
But that changed instantly once they reached Kuwait in October of the same year. The National Guard unit did not expect a mission filled with epic floods and other natural disasters, confrontations with Russian troops, or the rush to deploy to the region as tensions with the Iran was escalating rapidly, brigade officials recalled this week.
The approximately 5,000 Army National Guard troops who have deployed with the North Carolina-based brigade, which has subordinate units in South Carolina and West Virginia, have faced challenges. “challenges of biblical proportions” during the almost year-long tour, said Col. Charles Morrison, the unit commander. The brigade also had an Ohio National Guard battalion attached to it while deployed.
But the troops of the 30th Brigade eventually expanded to 10 more countries, largely to respond to security crises.
“These guys faced challenges from the start, as soon as they got on the ground,” Morrison said. “Originally, when Operation Spartan Shield reached us, it was a deterrent mission [focused] on Iran. … The conditions on the ground have kind of changed, which focuses a bit on the deterrence mission and of course on the things that happened.
From the time the brigade began preparing for the rotation until it returned home in September 2020, its soldiers saw two major floods and an earthquake, clashed with Russian and Syrian troops and state fighters Islamic State, and responded to Iranian missile and drone attacks. All of this was followed by the unprecedented global coronavirus pandemic that hit them midway through the tour, Morrison and other brigade officials told reporters on Tuesday at a press briefing.
“We even had a locust invasion in Saudi Arabia with our battalion that was there,” said Army Maj.Benjamin Bagwell, who was the brigade’s operations officer throughout the deployment. “When [Morrison] Said ‘biblical proportions‘, it was like everything except frogs falling from the sky that happened to us during this rotation.
Bagwell said a pair of natural disasters affecting the brigade’s soldiers in the months leading up to their deployment could have foreshadowed the challenges they would ultimately face in the Middle East.
In September 2018, just two weeks from a field training exercise, much of the 30th was ordered to declare guard duty to respond to catastrophic flooding in North and South Carolina caused by Hurricane Florence.
Weeks later, after deploying to the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., To repeat the deployment to the Middle East, the brigade was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Mojave Desert training station.
The brigade would face yet another flood in Kuwait shortly after its deployment, when about a year of rain fell in 24 hours over the small desert country, Bagwell said.
The challenges were not limited to natural disasters. Upon completion of the deployment, the brigade would send troops to Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. At any point during the rotation, about two-thirds of the brigade were outside of Kuwait, Bagwell said, a much busier cycle than most brigades have experienced for several years on the mission to Kuwait – known as Operation Spartan Shield.
Many soldiers found themselves in combat. The brigade awarded 56 combat action badges to soldiers who engaged with enemy forces. It also distributed nearly 2,000 Army Medals of Honor and Army Medals of Honor with a “C” combat device, indicating that the awards were given in a combat environment, the said. brigade. Brigade officials did not detail actions that earned soldiers combat rewards, including enemies they encountered. They said almost all of the awards were for incidents that happened in Syria or Iraq.
The brigade sent troops to Syria shortly after arriving, Bagwell said. He was tasked with sending a platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Syria as the Pentagon sought to tighten security in the oil fields in the eastern part of the country it had been tasked with holding. Additional troops from the 30th Brigade will later work to secure the convoys carrying troops and supplies between Iraq and Syria.
The soldiers were apparently sent to protect the oil fields from IS fighters, but the troops of the 30th Brigade found themselves in unusual circumstances in which US and Russian troops often interacted.
“Everyone was flying flags – you know you have Turkish flags on Turkish vehicles, Syrian flags, Russian flags, American flags,” Bagwell said.
The vast majority of interactions with the Russians and others operating in eastern Syria were professional, he said. Sometimes they were tense.
In one encounter, Bagwell recalls, the 30th Brigade cavalry troops escorted a supply convoy that fell on landmines on the road, stopping their convoy.
“Some Russians came, [and] there were a few words exchanged, ”said the major, adding that each side accused the other of trying to control the traffic. “But nothing has ever approached some sort of conflict with the Russians. … Most of the time, it was very accommodating.
The brigade only faced one attack from ISIS. Terrorists attempted to drop a mortar on some of his troops via a small drone that fell harmlessly to the ground far from the Americans, Bagwell said.
Many of the other issues that the 30th Brigade faced could be attributed to escalating tensions between the United States and Iran during their rotation. The brigade sent a battalion of soldiers to Saudi Arabia to bolster security around U.S. air defense systems deployed there after drone and missile strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure.
Then, after the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military leader, Major General Qasem Soleimani, in a January 3, 2020 drone strike at Baghdad airport, the entire response force brigade was activated to prepare for potential fallout, which would have included an Iranian ballistic missile strike on a US base in Iraq. The brigade, Bagwell said, was preparing to send tanks to Iraq, moving them to an airfield to be loaded onto cargo planes, but that call never came.
Two months later, the pandemic hit the region and soldiers from the 30th Brigade were called in to establish quarantine locations for new troops entering Kuwait, who had to self-isolate for two weeks before beginning missions to the Middle East.
Since returning to the United States in September, Morrison has said his brigade has focused on the reset and is yet to be scheduled for another overseas deployment. He is now preparing to deploy Abrams tanks and enhanced Bradley fighting vehicles over the next three years.
“We are looking forward to this,” said the colonel. “These citizen soldiers overcame a lot – a lot of unforeseen events – during this deployment.”