PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — The Wisconsin Army National Guard 229th Engineer Company got an unprecedented sendoff for its fall deployment to Afghanistan Saturday.
For the first time since the 229th was first deployed in 1990, the Platteville and Prairie du Chien halves of the company held a combined ceremony, at Prairie du Chien High School.
“Everybody’s talking negative about our country,” said Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the state adjutant general. “Everybody should come to Prairie du Chien and see this support for our soldiers.”
The ceremony was followed by what seemed like a family pre-reunion on St. Feriole Island, featuring free food, music and kids’ games.
Saturday’s events were nearly two years in the making, given that the 229th got their notice of deployment in October 2010. The 229th left early Monday for Fort Bliss, Texas, for more training before heading to Afghanistan later this year.
“Over the last 21 months these soldiers here today have trained, sweat, sacrified time and effort,” said Capt. Jesse Augustine, the company commander. “I can truly say I have never been more proud of an organization I’ve served with.”
Augustine told the soldiers that “We stand here at the doorstep of our rendezvous with destiny. … I challenge you like you’ve heard 100 times before from me — to be the best.”
He thanked those there to support the 229th by saying that “A true soldier doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him, but because he loves what’s behind him.”
The 229th is making its third deployment since it was created out of the former 32nd (Red Arrow) Division. The 32nd Division was called to active duty in 1961 during the Berlin Wall crisis. The 229th served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004.
“Once again, this great nation has called upon the 229th Engineers to support the nation,” said Army National Guard Command Sgt. Major George Stopper, who said the 229th was called up “because of the quality of the soldiers before us going forth and accomplishing every mission handed to them.”
Stopper noted that the Noncommissioned Officer Creed cites NCOs’ two basic responsibilities as “the accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my soldiers.
“Soldiers, I ask of you a simple task — go out and do your job. Do it well.”
Stopper was one of several Wisconsin National Guard leaders to speak at the ceremony.
“They have to volunteer,” said Dunbar. “They have the endless rigors of hard training, and they have to go in harm’s way. We have strategic interests in Afghanistan, and the decision has been made, and you send your best into each battle and that’s what we are — the 229th.
“You just focus on the mission,” Dunbar said to the soldiers. “We back here in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin National Guard have got your backs.”
“To the soldiers: Do your job [for the] countless thousands of lives, both coalition soldiers, Afghan nationals, and U.S. soldiers, whose lives you’re going to affect while you’re in theater,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, assistant adjutant general of the Army National Guard. “I am absolutely confident that they are prepared.”
Turning to the families, he said, “What you provide to that one soldier collectively creates the strength of the entire company.”
“You put your nation and the defense of freedom above yourself,” said Prairie du Chien Mayor Dave Hemmer, adding the soldiers “will be in our thoughts until the last soldier comes home.”
“You folks represent the best talent in America, and for that I am forever grateful,” said Rep. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City). “It is what you do that allows us to have the country we live in.”
“Hopefully we’ll have another turnout like this when you come back from deployment,” said Rep. Lee Nerison (R–Westby).
“I’ve had the honor and the privilege of visiting our troops on the ground,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D–La Crosse). “Nothing has made me more proud than to see the accomplishments of our men and women. … You are literally the best our nation has to offer.
“We wish you Godspeed and pay you tribute to your mission. On behalf of a grateful country, we thank you.”
Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Craig Krenz ended with “Until next time … hooah.”
The members of the 229th have a mix of military experience.
Augustine is on his third tour of duty, having gone to Afghanistan with the Army and Iraq with the National Guard.
“You’ll see somebody plowing a field with a donkey while talking on a cellphone,” he said about Afghanistan. “One thing that’s actually more comforting is that we’re going to get to be horizontal engineers — build roads, improve roads and trails that are already there … so we’re going to be comfortable and proficient in what they do, and that’s not always the case.
“So many of these soldiers bring a skill set as civilians that you don’t get on active duty,” he said, noting that the 229th includes Shawano County’s assistant highway superintendent and heavy equipment operators.
Dan Loeffelholz of Platteville, who is making his third tour with the 229th, agreed.
“We run heavy equipment,” he said. “We have people in all aspects of life. I feel we can adapt more sometimes than the full-time [Army] units can.”
This is Augustine’s first command after previously serving as a platoon leader and company executive officer.
“You go in confident with your ability but not overconfident,” he said. “Anytime you step up to the plate or ask for the full pay of leadership, it always entails additional work, additional time and effort, but you have to approach it the same way — to put forward the best product you can … [to put] the right subordinate leaders in the right positions.”
Loeffelholz is going to Afghanistan after two tours in Iraq.
“It’s going to be different in all areas,” he said. “We’re going to a different country. It’s still the same mission — win the hearts and minds of the local populace.”
Loeffelholz, who works in food service maintenance and repair for UW–Platteville, has noticed the changing of the National Guard.
During Desert Storm “still a lot of the local people from the surrounding communities [were] in the National Guard,” he said. “Iraq was a majority of college students; this deployment it’s almost all college students.
“Nowadays, they’re aware that yes, I may have to go to serve the country. They’ve accepted that.”
Belmont native Sean Shotliff went to Iraq in 2003.
“It’s definitely an eye-opener,” he said. “I went through it once; I’m doing it again. It’s a lot of training — preparation for what we may or may not be doing over there. It’s definitely going to be more intense.
“We train like we fight. We train hard, all day long — 18-hour days. The harder we train, the better it’ll be over there.”
Shotliff said the ceremony was “awesome … the family support is amazing, all the support we have from family and friends.”
Nathan Allen of Lancaster is making his first deployment. He is a firefighter/emergency medical technician for Tri-State Ambulance in Prairie du Chien and is on the Lancaster Rescue Squad.
Allen said the previous weeks have included “lots of training — good training that we’ll use if it’s needed.”
Allen will be a heavy equipment operator in Afghanistan.
“It’s going to be a tough time just with the transitions of being away for my wife and my daughter,” he said. “It’ll be a life experience that can make you better.”