FORT BLISS, Texas — Nearly 100 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers returned safely to U.S. soil Monday after nine months deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel.
The 950th Engineer Company returned to a rain-soaked airstrip at Fort Bliss in the early morning hours of Aug. 24 where senior Wisconsin Army National Guard leaders waited to greet them at the base of their plane.
Headquartered in Superior, Wisconsin, with a detachment in Spooner, Wisconsin, the 950th will complete their demobilization process at Fort Bliss before returning to the Badger State in the coming weeks. While reuniting with their families will have to wait for now, the joy of returning safely to U.S. soil was a nice consolation.
“It’s great to be home,” said Staff Sgt. Douglas Krultz, a Greenwood, Wisconsin, resident. “And in a few days, we’ll be home with our families and friends and doing stuff we really love.”
Krultz is looking forward to reconnecting with loved ones and spending time hunting and enjoying the outdoors.
“I’m a lot happier now,” Sgt. Lansing Roeber, a 950th Soldier from Superior said. “This is much better. The food is better.”
Roeber said he is anxiously awaiting his return to Wisconsin so he can reunite with his children after nearly a year away from home.
Roeber’s deployment was a microcosm of the changes the unit faced during their time in Afghanistan. Trained as a mechanic and to do vehicle recovery, he was utilized as a tower guard and as a member of the quick reaction force at Forward Operating Base Oqab for the majority of his time overseas.
The 950th is a route clearance company by trade and trained to identify and eliminate improvised explosive devices. The unit conducted route clearance operations on its last deployment to Iraq in 2010 and had continued training for that mission since returning. Even after leaving Wisconsin last fall to conduct pre-mobilization training at Fort Bliss, the unit continued to prepare for its assigned mission. But when the 950th arrived in Afghanistan, plans changed, and approximately half of the unit was reassigned to force protection operations at two different sites. One platoon continued with its assigned route clearance mission.
“We’re so happy to have you back,” Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor told the returning Soldiers shortly after they had landed in Texas. “What a tremendous mission, and it just goes to show that we deploy thinking we’re going to do one thing, and we get to theater and we really find out what we’re made out of in terms of leaders and Soldiers. You adjusted, adapted and did an outstanding job on a mission that you really didn’t plan on doing when you left.”
“Less than one percent of our country has done what you’ve done,” he added. “You should be extremely proud of that.”
Capt. Andrew Redd, the commander of the 950th, praised his Soldiers’ adaptability as well.
“I want to thank you guys for everything and what you did overseas,” he said. “I know it wasn’t exactly the mission we expected, but we adjusted and we made it happen and everything has gone smooth so far.”
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the Wisconsin National Guard’s deputy adjutant general for Army, beamed with pride at what the 950th accomplished overseas.
“It really is a statement and a reflection of the caliber of the men and women that you all are to be able to go over with the expectation of one type of mission and ultimately get thrown into a whole host of different jobs that you had to do, and true to form you met the standard and even exceeded the standard in many cases,” he told the troops after greeting them off the plane.
Anderson was joined on the tarmac by Shields and Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general. Dunbar expressed gratitude with their safe return.
“I prayed every day for you, and I’m grateful to God that you are all home safe,” Dunbar said.
Years from now, Dunbar said, the Soldiers of the 950th Engineer Company will look back upon what they accomplished in Afghanistan with pride knowing that they had a lasting impact on the coalition effort there.
“One percent of the population has worn the uniform, but far less than one percent have been deployed into a combat zone,” Dunbar said. “You have earned that distinction — combat veteran. It’s something to be proud of. For many of you it isn’t the first time. For many it is the first time. It is such an extraordinary thing you’ve done for your country.”
The unit ultimately completed 110 route clearance missions and provided 24-hour security for Forward Operating Base Oqab and at Kandahar Airfield. It also helped confirm and destroy one of the largest weapons caches ever discovered in Parwan Province in Afghanistan.
The 950th left Wisconsin in October 2014 for pre-mobilization training at Fort Bliss before deploying to Afghanistan in late 2014. The unit previously deployed to Iraq in 2003 on a construction operations mission and again in 2010 on a route clearance mission. Their current deployment was their first to Afghanistan.