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.
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."
The daily headlines of surging violence in Iraq -- where U.S. forces crossed the 1,000-killed threshold last month -- were also part of the stress heard in soldiers' comments.
"I think before we deploy we should be allowed to go home and see our families for five days, because some of us might not come back," said Spec. Wendell McLeod, 40, a steelworker from Cheraw, S.C. "Morale is pretty low. . . . It's leading to fights and stuff. That's really all I got to say."
McCarty, the commander, disagrees with those assessments. Overall, he said, the unit's morale is not poor. "The soldiers all have their issues to deal with, and some have dealt with it better than others," he said in an interview in his temporary office.
The problem, he said, is that he has to play the hand dealt him -- of assembling a new unit and getting it to work together while following a training schedule that has kept them going from dawn to long after dark, seven days a week, since mid-July.
"We are not here for annual training and then go home" -- that is, the typical schedule for National Guard units in the past -- said McCarty, assistant deputy director of law enforcement for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in civilian life. "We are here to prepare to go into a combat zone."
Some military leaders like to say that the best quality of life is having one -- a view to which McCarty appears to subscribe. "It is not my objective to win a popularity contest with my soldiers," he said. "My objective is to take them out and back home safely to their families."
As for the barracks lockdown, he said, "I am not going to apologize. . . . I did what I felt was necessary."
In the past, McCarty noted, members of Guard units usually had years of service together. That has enabled Guard units to compensate somewhat, using unit cohesion -- that is, mutual understanding and trust -- to make up for having less training time together than do active-duty units. But that was not the case with this battalion. "We didn't have that degree of stabilization to start with," he said.
He also contends that his case is hardly unusual nowadays. "Other units have similar problems," he said. "Ours just make more headlines." The disciplinary measures were covered by some soldiers' hometown newspapers, perhaps because it is one of the largest mobilizations of the South Carolina Guard since Sept. 11, 2001.
Sgt. Maj. Clarence Gamble, who as the top noncommissioned officer for the battalion keeps a close eye on morale and discipline, said he does not see any big problems. "I get out and see troops every day," he said. "From my talking to the troops, morale is good right now."
Indeed, some members of the unit agree with this view. "Overall, morale's good," said Sgt. John Mahaffey. "But of course you're going to have some who, no matter if you gave them their food on a gold platter, they'd still . . . whine." A car salesman from Spartanburg, S.C., Mahaffey, 41, said he volunteered to go to Iraq and is glad he did. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. The unit is essentially ready to go, he said. "If you wait till everything's perfect, you'll never get anything accomplished."
Gamble defended the lockdown that followed the fighting. "I think that what we did at the time was something that we needed to do to make sure that we had command and control of the battalion," he said. He added, "I don't think it was a detriment to morale, because it was short-lived."
He also says that unit cohesion is developing. "We knew it was going to take some time to develop the chemistry. And it's working."
As for volunteers who say they now regret it, "I think when our deployment is over, people will have different opinions."
Gamble, who at age 51 is a 33-year veteran of the Guard, said he is not worried about putting an already stressed unit into the cauldron of Iraq duty. "I haven't ever been deployed before, myself," he said. But, he concluded, "I feel like this unit will handle this well. Once we get in-country and get into missions, I think the stress will level off."