It was a birthday to remember as Hernandez turned 26 on March 19, 2003: "Oh, it was pretty good considering I was just sitting on my truck watching the Tomahawk missiles going overhead, going towards Baghdad and looking at all the Apache helicopters swooping (along the Iraq-Kuwait border) waiting for the word 'invasion.'"
Slated to be back in Iraq, Hernandez will turn 32 next March, roughly halfway through a yearlong deployment with the Spokane-based 1st Battalion of the 161st Infantry Regiment.
The 1-161st is expected to provide security escort for convoys of trucks carrying fuel and other supplies to U.S. military bases around Iraq.
Some six years removed from his shock-and-awe birthday, Hernandez and other Washington Guard soldiers will find a very different Iraq. No whiz-bang weaponry such as the cruise missiles, no horizon-to-horizon armored convoy accelerating toward Baghdad in a cloud of dust. Not a lot of actual war fighting at all, in fact, but still a country filled with violence and ambiguous enemies.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & t's a completely different animal now," says Toby Nunn, who recently left the military after garnering some uncomfortable fame as one of the soldiers highlighted in the PBS Frontline documentary "Bad Voodoo's War," which aired last spring.
What Nunn knows and Washington Guard soldiers like Hernandez will soon find out is:
& lt;li & The U.S. military is "no longer the welcome conquerors, and they are no longer even the occupying force. They are a quasi-welcome force" in a sovereign nation that wants to run its own show, Nunn says. & lt;/li &
& lt;li & Further, "One of the political things we need to recognize is the National Guard is no longer doing the sexy missions. You are no longer involved in direct contact but are being utilized for force protection," Nunn says. & lt;/li &
Guard units -- like Nunn's Bad Voodoo platoon with the California National Guard last year, the Washington Guard's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team (HBCT) this year and Oregon's 41st BCT next year -- are all being split into component parts and attached to various active duty units throughout Iraq, primarily to escort corporate-owned and -operated semi-trucks.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is angered by the change in policy that appears to have National Guard troops doing jobs the regular Army doesn't want to do.
"I think it is a dangerous mission. There are things the active-duty Army doesn't want to do and I am very offended by it," Kulongoski told the Oregonian's Mike Francis in a story published Aug. 3.
The Oregon governor was mad enough that he wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on July 10 that reads, in part, "Using [the National Guard brigades] in ad hoc organizations structured specifically for the mission is seen by our soldiers as making them 'fillers' rather than trained, cohesive units. It sends the signal to them that they are second-rate soldiers and units."
Kulongoski's press aide Rem Nivens tells The Inlander this week that the governor's staff is not aware of a response from Gates.
"This is an issue facing all deployed units of the Army National Guard. It is something all governors and all adjutant generals have expressed grave concerns about and something we are trying to reverse," says Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, the Adjutant General (TAG) in command of the 81st HBCT.
As recently as 2005, National Guard units were in control of division-level and brigade-level sectors in Iraq.
"For reasons that have not been satisfactorily explained, the Army is insisting on breaking up [Guard] brigades into subordinate units," Lowenberg says.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & unn, the gruff sergeant first class in "Bad Voodoo's War," has just come off a year of convoy escort. He had previously been deployed to Iraq with the Fort Lewis-based 1-23 Stryker Brigade at the same time the Washington Guard was there on a first deployment. Back in 2004-05, both the Strykers and the Guard were running a variety of missions in Iraq, everything from working with neighborhood councils to fighting insurgents. It was seen as work with a purpose -- help rebuild Iraq, destroy the enemy.
Nunn later joined the California National Guard for help with college after his enlistment in the regular Army ended. He found himself back in Iraq from last year to last spring pulling convoy security -- the new paradigm for Guard soldiers who, in his case, were forbidden by rules of engagement from even chasing down suspected IED triggermen after bombs detonated on convoy routes.
"I'm a door kicker by trade. I'm not a truck driver," Nunn says by telephone from Texas, where he has moved with his wife and family. "I am not in the service-and-support business. I am a bald-headed ugly door kicker who'd like to hit somebody in the face."
The restrictions of a support role can chafe, and Nunn suspects this will be an adjustment for the Washington Guard troops.
"That's one of the toughest challenges. A lot of these young men and women [in the Guard] go over there with great ideals and romantic beliefs about what they are going to do and how they will contribute. ... And then they get there and are told that for 12 months they'll be pulling 12-hour shifts looking at sand," Nunn says. "That's where depression sets in and where guys get mischievous."
National Guard units in Iraq are getting a poor reputation, Nunn says, as disgruntled soldiers who act out in frustration at their limited support roles and whose Guard leadership may have little control over its soldiers as companies are broken off and assigned to active duty elements.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen it comes to roadside bombs, Nunn's recent tour shows the evolution of this cheap (one estimate has IEDs costing roughly as much as a pizza) and deadly technology. On the one hand, there are fewer IEDs -- Nunn estimates 50 or 60 went off against his platoon during its deployment. It's a fraction of the 900-plus experienced by North Idaho Guard soldiers during 2005.
However, the IEDs are deadlier and more sophisticated. In parts of Iraq east and south of Baghdad, Nunn says, convoy escorts will run into EFPs (explosively formed penetrators). These differ in that they have a copper slug that is part of the bomb.
"It forms a molten projectile that burns and penetrates. It's the worst," Nunn says.
Which brings up perhaps Nunn's biggest frustration that, in his particular case, missions were run by commanders as far away as Kuwait, "where they are eating in nice restaurants and driving Mercedes and enjoying the fat of the land," Nunn says, "and so detached from what we were doing that they were clueless to ops."
Nunn says he would get e-mails from commanders who had gone to Google Maps and outlined a distance of X miles between bases to determine that the convoy should be done in Y hours.
It infuriated Nunn because there was little or no consideration on bombs, ambush sites and for gathering local knowledge of the stretches of highway.
Another possible curveball for local soldiers is language. As non-combat missions, convoy escorts will not have translators. Not that an Arab-language speaker would be of much use anyway when herding a column of trucks driven by Filipinos, Pakistanis or Indians -- Nunn says he was lucky to find soldiers in his group who could speak Tagalog or Punjabi and says he spent a lot of time on Rosetta Stone.