FORT DIX, N.J. -- The 635 soldiers of a battalion of the South Carolina National Guard scheduled to depart Sunday for a year or more in Iraq have spent their off-duty hours under a disciplinary lockdown in their barracks for the past two weeks.
The trouble began Labor Day weekend, when 13 members of the 1st Battalion of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment went AWOL, mainly to see their families again before shipping out. Then there was an ugly confrontation between members of the battalion's Alpha and Charlie batteries -- the term artillery units use instead of "companies" -- that threatened to turn into a brawl involving three dozen soldiers, and required the base police to intervene.
The 1st Battalion of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment of the South Carolina Army National Guard marches to a final briefing before its move to Iraq.
(Photos David Moore -- Fort Dix, U.s. Army Photo)
That prompted a barracks inspection that uncovered alcohol, resulting in the lockdown that kept soldiers in their rooms except for drills, barred even from stepping outside for a smoke, a restriction that continued with some exceptions until Sunday's scheduled deployment.
The battalion's rough-and-tumble experience at a base just off the New Jersey Turnpike reflects many of the biggest challenges, strains and stresses confronting the Guard and Reserve soldiers increasingly relied on to fight a war 7,000 miles away.
This Guard unit was put on an accelerated training schedule -- giving the soldiers about 36 hours of leave over the past two months -- because the Army needs to get fresh troops to Iraq, and there are not enough active-duty or "regular" troops to go around. Preparation has been especially intense because the Army is short-handed on military police units, so these artillerymen are being quickly re-trained to provide desperately needed security for convoys. And to fully man the unit, scores of soldiers were pulled in from different Guard outfits, some voluntarily, some on orders.
As members of the unit looked toward their tour, some said they were angry, or reluctant to go, or both. Many more are bone-tired. Overall, some of them fear, the unit lacks strong cohesion -- the glue that holds units together in combat.
"Our morale isn't high enough for us to be away for 18 months," said Pfc. Joshua Garman, 20, who, in civilian life, works in a National Guard recruiting office. "I think a lot of guys will break down in Iraq." Asked if he is happy that he volunteered for the deployment, Garman said, "Negative. No time off? I definitely would not have volunteered."
A series of high-level decisions at the Pentagon has come together to make life tough for soldiers and commanders in this battalion and others. The decisions include the Bush administration's reluctance to sharply increase the size of the U.S. Army. Instead, the Pentagon is relying on the National Guard and Reserves, which provide 40 percent of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Also, the top brass has concluded that more military police are needed as security deteriorates and the violent insurgency flares in ways that were not predicted by Pentagon planners.
These soldiers will be based in northern Kuwait and will escort supply convoys into Iraq. That is some of the toughest duty on this mission, with every trip through the hot desert bringing the possibility of being hit by roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire.
The drilling to prepare this artillery unit for that new role has been intense. Except for a brief spell during Labor Day weekend, soldiers have been confined to post and prevented from wearing civilian clothes when off duty. The lockdown was loosened to allow soldiers out of the barracks in off hours to go to the PX, the gym and a few other places, if they sign out and move in groups.
"There's a federal prison at Fort Dix, and a lot of us feel the people in there have more rights than we do," said Spec. Michael Chapman, 31, a construction worker from near Greenville, S.C.
Some complaints heard during interviews with the soldiers here last week centered on long hours and the disciplinary measures -- both of which the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Van McCarty, said were necessary to get the unit into shape before combat.
Sgt. Kelvin Richardson, 38, a machinist from Summerville, S.C., volunteered for this mission but says he now wishes he had not and has misgivings about the unit's readiness. Richardson is a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which he served with the 1st Cavalry Division, an active-duty "regular" unit. This battalion "doesn't come close" to that division, he said. "Active-duty, they take care of the soldiers."
Pfc. Kevin Archbald, 20, a construction worker from Fort Mill, S.C., who was transferred from another South Carolina Guard unit, also worries about his cobbled-together outfit's cohesion. "My last unit, we had a lot of people who knew each other. We were pretty close." He said he does not feel that in the 178th. Here, he said, "I think there's just a lot of frustration."