Watch the California National Guard's action-packed training exercise at Camp Roberts
Sgt. Stephen Dean is heading back to the Middle East with his Northern California National Guard battalion for another deployment. But this one doesn’t worry his parents quite as much as his first tour in Iraq.
He’s one of about 300 citizen soldiers who are leaving this weekend for a nine-month tour in Jordan, where they’ll train alongside Jordanian troops and boost the U.S. security footprint in case a regional disaster unfolds.
The big difference for him and other veterans: They don’t expect to see combat in the time they’ll spend in the desert, away from their families and their civilian workplaces.
“This is a Jordan deployment, so it’s not as intense an Iraq deployment. This’ll be more like vacation for the guys,” Dean, 29, of Auburn joked.
His unit departed on Saturday out of Sacramento International Airport for Fort Bliss in Texas for its last pre-deployment training. Theirs is the largest deployment of a California National Guard infantry unit to the Middle East since Dean and others returned from Iraq in 2009 with the Modesto-based 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment.
Now, the 1-184th is on its way to join a mission spread out across several countries where American troops partner with allies around hot spots like Iraq and Syria. It’s called Operation Spartan Shield. Armstrong’s soldiers will be considered guests of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and they’ll train at a Jordanian military base near Amman.
“We haven’t seen a deployment like this in quite awhile, but I think this is going to be a really good mission,” said Lt. Col. Joel Armstrong, 49, of Fair Oaks, commander of the 1-184th. “As much as I don’t want to be away from my wife and children, I’m looking forward to getting started so we can finish.”
Most of the California soldiers leaving for Jordan have not deployed abroad, Armstrong said. But, the battalion has a core of veterans who can pass on lessons they learned from the unit’s two Iraq deployments.
Armstrong was on the first, a 2005 deployment marked by tough fighting around Baghdad that claimed the lives of 17 of the battalion’s soldiers. One of the casualties was Col. William Wood, who the Army put in charge of the battalion mid-tour. He was one of the highest-ranking officers to die in combat in the recent wars.
The battalion received a movie star’s welcome when it came home. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dubbed the troops “true action heroes.”
The battalion went back to Iraq in 2008, and provided security to convoys rolling across the country’s northern provinces.
“It was a good deployment. We all came back,” said Dean, who as a civilian works on a train crew for Union Pacific Railroad.
Armstrong wants his troops to come home next year stronger from their experiences training with foreign peers and deploying together on a long mission. It’s the kind of experience that could have helped the 1-184th on its first tour, he said.
“No one wants to deploy, but we have a duty because we took an oath, and when you get called upon to serve your state or federal government, you’ve got to do it. That’s why I want to get on this mission. Then, when we return, I’ll be returning a bunch of soldiers who’ll have the experience to make the California National Guard even better.”
The 1-184th draws from citizen soldiers living in the Central Valley and Sierra foothills. Armstrong set up a so-called family readiness group to keep troops’ spouses and children up to date on their deployment, and he plans to send a message to them every month.
“It’s not just the soldiers who have this burden,” said the battalion’s highest-ranking enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Travis Armstrong. As a civilian, he’s general manager for Republic Services in Contra Costa County. (He is not related to Lt. Col. Armstrong.) “It’s a hardship for the families, for the employers.”