Florida’s 631st Maintenance Company prepares for Iraq deployment

Written by  //  August 27, 2009  //  Feature Stories

FORT McCOY, Wis. (Aug. 27, 2009) — On a mild late-summer afternoon a military convoy pulled up to the fuel point. Soldiers in body armor dismounted from the dusty Humvees, rifles ready and their eyes keenly scanning the perimeter.

Pfc. Terry Barefoot (right) of 631st Maintenance Company provides security for a convoy of Humvees at a fuel point during training in Ft. McCoy, Wis., Aug. 24, 2009. Spc. Jose Ramos of the 631st is seated in the turret of the Humvee. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa

They didn’t let their guard down or remove their equipment; their senses were heightened and their weapons were ready, just in case.

This wasn’t Iraq, but for the members of the 631st Maintenance Company it seemed like it – because in another month they will be deployed to Southwest Asia.

More than 180 members of the Florida Army National Guard unit from Starke, Fla., were conducting pre-deployment training at Fort McCoy, Wis., in late August. The unit specializes in maintenance of wheeled vehicles, weapons and communications equipment, but their upcoming mission will include security of convoy operations in Northern Iraq.

The 631st is scheduled to leave Fort McCoy in mid-September.

For 22-year-old Pvt. Fawziyya Harris – one of the unit’s newest Soldiers –– the deployment will be a chance to grow as both a person and a Soldier.

During a break from training Harris stood in a sun-bathed motorpool wearing body armor and Kevlar helmet, her M-16 rifle pointed at the ground. Harris and nearly 30 members of her unit were practicing convoy procedures; they were learning to be alert and ready – even during breaks.

“I’m pretty excited, but nervous,” Harris, a resident of Port St. Lucie, Fla., said. “I’m expecting a lot of experience, a lot of changes, a lot of mind-opening things.”

As her first with deployment with the National Guard since she joined last year, she is anxious about deploying is looking forward to the opportunity.

“My stomach’s in knots,” Harris said, hiding any anxieties behind a steady voice and her jet-black sunglasses. “It’s something I had to prove to myself. I actually volunteered to come with this unit.”

Nearby, another Soldier wearing a combat patch was looking at a map and discussing convoy routes with his team. Forty-year-old Staff Sgt. Wyman Gleaton from Middleburg, Fla., was preparing for his sixth deployment to Southwest Asia.

“I’ve got a lot of experience out on the road, being able to pick out (improvised explosive devices), and a lot of experience about what to do after you get hit by one,” Gleaton, who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said confidently. “And I try to pass that on to these younger guys and give them a heads-up. Things that they think are normal here are not normal there.”

Gleaton said that during his last deployment with the South Carolina National Guard he conducted about 300 convoy operations and nearly 50 recovery missions. He said he feels his job as a non-commissioned officer during the pre-deployment training is to pass his experience on to the younger Soldiers like Harris, and make sure they have an easier time in a combat zone than he did.

“I don’t want these guys to have the learning curve that I had,” Gleaton explained. “I’d like them to be ahead of the curve.”

Before mounting back up in the Humvees for their convoy exercise, the Soldiers and their training were briefly interrupted by official visitors from Florida; Assistant Adjutant General for the Florida Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael Fleming and Florida National Guard State Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Hosford spoke to the troops to offer words of encouragement on the deployment.

The general and command sergeant major visit each Florida Army National Guard unit at their mobilization station – whether it is in Wisconsin, Georgia, or Mississippi – to view the training and make sure they are ready to head overseas.

“Until they actually deploy in theater, we in the Florida Army National Guard feel like we are still responsible for their training,” Brig. Gen. Fleming said. “On occasion we’ve had to address issues, but by and large we’re just looking at their training. Also we’re looking to see what kind of new and innovative methods are being used at mobilization stations.

“We want to come up and show them that what they’re doing is important,” he added. “They have worked hard, they represent the Florida Army National Guard, and we want to thank them for that.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Hosford told the gathered Soldiers that one of the most important responsibilities they will have during the deployment is “keeping the lines of communication” open with their families and employers back home.

“Soldiers get into the areas of operation in Iraq and Afghanistan and their daily (operational tempo) is so high that a lot of times they lose sight of the fact that their families are back in the rear and thinking about them,” he said.

As the training day came to a close, the 631st’s senior enlisted Soldier, 1st Sgt. Ellis Sirmans, took the general and command sergeant major on a tour of a mock-up forward operating base at Ft. McCoy. This is where Soldiers are given a preview of life on a base in Iraq, which includes security details, austere conditions and even the occasional insurgent attack.

Sirmans said his unit was eagerly anticipating their mid-September deployment to Iraq, and the high-intensity training was teaching them to constantly “stay on their guard.” “The Soldiers are expecting to do their mission and try to stay focused,” he said. “The main concern is to stay focused and not get complacent. It’s easy to get complacent.”

The 631st Maintenance Company is scheduled to return from Iraq next summer.