by Steele, Dennis
The 278th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) patrols the eastern flank of 42nd Infantry Division's Task Force Liberty and a big swath of the Iraq-Iran border. It is an area of operations that is about half the size of the unit's home state of Tennessee, and an area where the flat Iraqi desert slams head-on into the range of craggy mountains that forms the border, concealing a labyrinth of trails that have served smugglers well for centuries.
The 278th RCT patrols a land of, largely, dust and poverty that bears the scars of some of the fiercest battles of the Iran-Iraq War. Today, it is littered with unexploded ordnance, and shifting sands reveal minefields left from the war.
The 278th RCT is built around the Tennessee National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which by maintaining its unit designation in Iraq preserves a proud heritage that stretches back to militia units from Tennessee that marched across the Smoky Mountains to fight in South Carolina, helping to win the Revolutionary War's pivotal Battle of King's Mountain and helping to establish Tennessee as the "Volunteer" state. It continues a National Guard lineage that dates from the late 1800s, with service in two world wars as Infantry formations.
The 278th RCT, headquartered at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Caldwell, is also a family. Soldiers bond through serving long careers together in the regiment, and it is literally a family in some cases, with many fathers, sons, daughters, uncles and cousins scattered in the ranks.
There are many other associations as well. Take the 2nd Platoon, Troop A (Apache), of the 278th RCT's 1st Squadron. The platoon sergeant is SFC Archie McDaniel, an eighth-grade teacher from Cleveland, Tenn. His driver, Spc. Jason Murray, is a former student. SFC McDaniel joined the Tennessee Guard in 1977. Having served in the Regular Army and then finished college, he found that a starting teacher's salary would not make ends meet, but his reasons for staying extended well beyond extra income; he has reenlisted to stay in the same company/troop for the past 28 years.
The 278th RCT commander, Col. Dennis J. Adams, has served in the regiment for his entire military career, starting as a second lieutenant. "The Guard today, however, is not the Guard I came into 27 years ago," Col. Adams said. "There is a lot of professionalism today, both in the job we do and the equipment we have."
"Our state did a great job getting equipment to us before we mobilized," Col. Adams added. "And if we need a replacement, the soldier comes from our home state Guard. So far, the Tennessee National Guard has filled 95 percent of our vacancies."
But home support does not stop there.
"I understand that on the night of the [Iraqi] elections, people all around Tennessee held prayer vigils," the colonel said. "Not a day goes by that I don't receive a letter or e-mail from back home, telling me how proud they are of the regiment, and I feel that support is like having an extra squadron or battalion."
His civilian profession also was teaching. He taught graphic arts and was a football, basketball and track coach. He said that commanding the regiment is much like coaching, "except I get to go on the field and play."
The 278th RCT's 1st Squadron has responsibility for the southern part of the regiment's area of operations; 2nd Squadron has the northern part, and the 3rd Squadron is responsible for the central sector. Vast pools of oil are under the mountains of the north and central sectors.
In the 3rd Squadron's area of responsibility, crumbling hulks of oil drilling and pumping machinery have for many years been left to rust on a hillside that drips oil.
Directly above the derelict gear, broad rivers of oil slowly seep from the hilltop and flow down the hillside. In the distance can be seen the fires atop Iranian wells, burning off gas while they pump oil from the same massive underground deposit.
Oil is one reason the 278th RCT area of responsibility is so important. It is Iraq's economic future.
"These people are sitting on a gold mine," said Lt. Col. Jeffery Holmes, who commands the 3rd Squadron at FOB Cobra.
He thinks that improving the Iraqi economy will be a primary factor in winning the war. "A lot of the anti-coalition and anti-Iraqi government insurgents use the unemployed and the impoverished to work for them, so if we stimulate the economy, it takes away from the AIF (anti-Iraqi forces)," Col. Holmes said.
The first steps toward economic improvement, however, require a more secure environment and a sound government, both of which are ultimately the responsibility of the Iraqis themselves. Col. Holmes said that training Iraqi security forces and working with local Iraqi civil authorities to establish a free and responsive government structure is the perfect job for Guard soldiers.
"It is the right time and the right mission for the National Guard," he noted. He cited the Guard's experience in working daily with state and municipal governments and the wealth of civilian talent in the unit, ranging from detectives and police officers who can help train the Iraqi police to civil engineers who can offer their expertise to rebuild the infrastructure.
Building a local and provincial Iraqi government system practically from scratch, while encouraging cooperation among members of previously competing and antagonistic tribes, has been a priority. "Their conflicts occurred within the last 10 to 15 years, and we ask them to sit at the table with one another," Col. Holmes explained. "We try to understand by putting ourselves in their shoes and seeing how difficult it is for them. [Nevertheless,] we've gotten different tribal organizations to sit down and meet. Two tribes that genuinely hated each other are now talking across the table and seeing what they can accomplish."
According to Col. Holmes, the Iraqi election provided the catalyst for a leap in success. "We've seen a change in the city councils, mayors and local governments since the elections. Up to that point, it was as if they were just taking up seats. Now, it's 'let's get something done/ They are talking about the future," he said. "Through the elections, we've been able to bring to reality what a lot of these people thought they would never achieve, and seeing the people become confident is significant."
Col. Holmes added, "The next step is to nurture that enthusiasm and promote patience-wean them off us to their own government ... and not let them give up." The regimental commander explained that the 278th RCT's mission in Iraq basically is to work itself out of a job, training Iraqi security forces to take over and stepping back as they become more able.
"My soldiers feel they are doing something important," Col. Adams said.
The Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment will be a major addition to the regiment's rich history, and the 278th soldiers' loyalty to the unit and each other remains its heritage. A prime example is a former regimental commander, Ronald G. Price, who stepped down as its colonel in 2000. He wanted so much to deploy with the regiment that he rejoined the unit as a staff sergeant.
"'Volunteer' is not just a state slogan," Col. Adams said.
Text and Photographs By Dennis Steele - Senior Staff Writer
Copyright Association of the United States Army Jun 2005. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.
Story Copyright to ARMY Magazine
Publisher: Association of the United States Army
Publication Name: Army
Subject: Military and naval science