Guard for a Day:
Joining our state's citizen soldiers
From the turret of the speeding M1A1 Abrams tank, I could see a thin line of smoke snaking into the horizon. The cause of the smoke, a small brush fire on a dun-colored hill about half-mile distant, was the result of a 120mm kinetic tungsten penatrator round striking a target. To my right, the tank commander, a 36-year-old soldier from Lake Stevens, smiled and said something to me. Over the din of the Abrams and the small convoy of Bradley fighting vehicle rumbling over the desert terrain, I couldn't hear what he said. I wiped the dust from my eyes and smiled back.
Like any other soldier these days, I ended up in the tank because I was sent there by an elected official. Okay, in this case, it was a formerly elected official. At 8 a.m., our small group met Staff Sergeant Dave Schmidt formerly the State Senator for the 44th District at the Olympia airport's Washington State Patrol hangar. The group was excited to start the day's program.
I was pretty excited too, until I saw the plane that Sgt. Schmidt was shepherding us towards. The small, high-wing, dual propeller craft looked like something out of a flight museum, and as I strapped myself in, I was told it was called a "Sherpa", and that because the cabin wasn't pressurized, it might get a little cold and hard to breathe as we climbed past 11,000 feet. I was somewhat pacified by the fact that fellow passengers included a two-star general and three state elected officials.
The plane lived up to its name, packing us swiftly over the mountain peaks to our destination in Yakima, where two Chinook helicopters stood waiting.
"We usually use Blackhawks," Schmidt yelled over the signature 'whump-whump' percussion of the heli's dual rotors, "but they're all in Iraq!"
Minutes later we descended upon our destination - the 327,000 acre Yakima Training Center America's second-largest facility of its kind. Home to some 50 tanks, over 50 Bradley fighting vehicles, and a wide array of other battle and support vehicles, the YTC serves as the live-action practice field for soldiers across the country.
We were met and driven to the command center for breakfast. After a quick tour, the action started. Once again we hopped in the Chinhook, this time headed for "the field" where soldiers were conducting live-fire training.
We had the opportunity to see the awesome power of the military's ground game, watching in stunned silence as the Abrams unloaded its deadly-accurate arsenal on remote targets thousands of yards away. We were introduced to the Guard members. Some were full-time soldiers, but most were traditional one-weekend-a-month types. Some had served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Our helicopter pilot a small, wiry man with salt-and-pepper hair and youthful face betrayed by wrinkles around his eyes had flown combat missions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
For lunch, we ate Meals Ready to Eat (the infamous 3,000 calorie portable "MRE") with the troops in the field. I had chicken with salsa, and after cooking it in the chemical heat bag provided inside, it really wasn't too bad, but I see how one could grow tired of it. Unlike the others in my group, mine contained a bag of M&M's, which was pretty sweet.
The soldiers we talked to were a fit and smart bunch on the whole. They were enthusiastic about their experience, and quick to recommend the National Guard to our group. They were full of facts and entertaining stories.
We learned that at present, only about 300 of Washington State's 6,000 Guard members are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan but another round of increased deployments is scheduled for 2010.
We learned that Washington State was one of the first to offer aid following Hurricane Katrina, with Washington Guard members on the ground in New Orleans less than 48 hours after the storm (the state Guard Commander was quick to point out that our response was dictated by the decision of our Governor, while at the federal level, the Secretary of Defense idled through a 25-step decision process that lasted almost a week before sending military assistance).
We learned that the Guard trains in fire prevention, and has many members certified in wild-fire fighting techniques, along with traditional training in natural disaster assistance.
We learned that the best thing about the Washington National Guard is that they exist solely to serve our state, and answer only to the Governor making response efforts quick and decisive.
At the end of the day, we hopped back on the "Sherpa" and climbed back over the Cascade peaks.
It was a turbulent ride I heard the pilot saying something about one inch hail, and I saw him reaching for an oxygen mask before I passed out. The next thing I knew, we were exiting the plane in Olympia, the sun was out, and a smiling Guardsman was shaking our hands and sending us on our way home.
Our day in the Guard was over, but for the citizen soldiers of Washington State, the duty of supporting and protecting our state at home, nationally, and across the ocean carries on.
To see additional pictures, visit the Off the Record blog at www.lakestevensjournal.com. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.