NEWS | Feb. 8, 2018

First Army prepares Pa. Guard division for Middle East deployment

By Master Sgt. Gail Braymen First Army

You could say history is repeating itself.

In this case, it’s the ongoing partnership of two historic Army units – the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division and First Army – supporting America’s allies overseas.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, in 1918, Soldiers of the 28th ID and the newly created First Army fought together in France during the Muese-Argonne Offensive, which helped bring World War I to an end. In World War II, the units fought together in major battles including the Hurtgen Forest and the Ruhr Pocket.

Today, in Texas, First Army observer coach/trainers are helping prepare Soldiers of the 28th ID Headquarters for their upcoming deployment to the Middle East, where they will support combat operations, Operation Spartan Shield, and theater security cooperation with the United States’ 17 partner nations in the region. At Fort Hood, about 500 Pennsylvania Army National Guard Soldiers are going through their culminating training event, which tests and assesses the staff’s readiness for their nine-month mission.

“We have a really good relationship with First Army,” said the 28th ID’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Andrew Schafer Jr. “You can’t evaluate yourself; you need the outside observers looking in.”

The 28th ID will be the third Army National Guard unit to take on this mission under U.S. Central Command, replacing the Kansas Army National Guard’s 35th Infantry Division. “It’s good for the Army and the Army National Guard” to have an ARNG unit fulfilling these duties, Schafer said.

“It’s a great opportunity for (ARNG) Soldiers to see the big picture,” he said. “These young Soldiers will have this experience for the rest of their careers.”

In preparation for this deployment, First Army’s 174th Infantry Brigade has partnered with and provided training support to the 28th ID for the past few years.

“The 28th Infantry Division got to where they are because they’re a professional, learning organization that enforces discipline and standards,” said the 174th Infantry Brigade’s commander, Col. David Sanders. “And, frankly, they just have a lot of great people on this team. They’re going to do really well on this mission.”

The culminating training exercise at Fort Hood is familiarizing the 28th ID Soldiers with conditions in Kuwait, where they will be headquartered while deployed.

“We’re using the same terrain, the same units and the same products. It's almost like being in Kuwait," said Col. Brain Payne, chief observer coach/trainer of the exercise and commander of First Army's 120th Infantry Brigade. "We've basically replicated the majority of the conditions they'll encounter when they first hit the ground.

"They're an exceptionally driven, learning organization," Payne continued. "They're doing really well."

Adding an extra element of realism to the exercise are about 80 Soldiers in the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 151st Regional Support Group, which is deploying to the Middle East at the same time as the 28th ID. The 151st RSG Soldiers will augment the staff of U.S. Army Central, the 28th ID's higher headquarters in theater.

“The 151st Soldiers are learning and familiarizing themselves with the staff roles that we’ll be performing in theater," said the unit’s deputy commander, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Love. "Being here for the CTE allows us to build relationships with the 28th ID before we actually get ‘in the box.’ It really sets us up for success.”

This will be the first deployment for many of the 28th ID Soldiers, and their senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt. Maj. John Jones, is keeping a close eye on them.

“All the stuff we have to do to deploy creates stress,” he said. “We’ve asked a lot of our senior NCOs and officers to help our junior Soldiers through the stress of their first deployment. We’re also making sure they keep in touch with their people back home. For a lot of them, it’s their first extended time away from home.”

One 28th ID Soldier deploying for the first time is Spc. Alexander Patrick, a Nodal Network Systems operator-maintainer from Philadelphia who studies information technology in college and also works as a Walmart cashier.

“I’m really excited. I love the group I’m going with,” said the 23-year-old, who joined the Army National Guard in 2015. “This is going to be a huge step for me, in terms of maturing. It’s the furthest I’ve been from home. It’ll be the biggest time zone difference. I’m honestly just excited for the trip.”

Also deploying for the first time is Capt. Matt Gabler, the 28th ID’s medical logistics officer from DuBois, Pennsylvania. Gabler is leaving behind an unusual civilian occupation: he represents the state's 75th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

“I’m glad to be able to do what I trained for," he said. "To receive the call to do a real-world mission is a great honor.”

The lengthy preparation and training for the 28th ID’s deployment has paid off, according to Maj. Robert Smith, 174th Infantry Brigade Intelligence Chief, who has been working with and mentoring Soldiers in the 28th ID’s Intelligence section since 2016.

“They quickly adapt. This organization impresses me with how quickly they integrate new (tactics, techniques and procedures),” Smith said. “They take the enduring partnership (with First Army) very seriously. They feel very comfortable with us around.

“It’s a long-term trust relationship that we’ve built with this unit. It’s a great example of a partnership.”