Author’s note: this is the first in a multi-part series following the 2-108th Cavalry Squadron of the Louisiana National Guard as the unit prepares for its rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), at Fort Polk, LA. Each piece will tell a different part of the unit’s story, and give readers a glimpse into how National Guard units prepare for war.
It’s a halfway pleasant day — one of the first in Shreveport, Louisiana, since the end of Spring — and about 200 National Guard soldiers of the 2-108th Cavalry Squadron*, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) are assembled at Fort Humbug, on the city’s east side. It’s drill weekend, and the soldiers are completing administrative business — the bureaucracy that defines government work. Equipment checks, medical exams, physical fitness tests, awards, promotions, retention interviews, unit planning, and various other mundane (yet vital) tasks are the weekend’s primary objectives.
This is the Squadron’s last chance in 2018 to complete these types of tasks, as the rest of the drill weekends will be devoted to weapons qualifications and other combat training. The 2-108th, along with the rest of the 256th IBCT, is gearing up for their rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) in Fort Polk, Louisiana. At JRTC, the brigade will take part in a simulated deployment, complete with a highly skilled and motivated opposition force played by active-duty Regular Army soldiers. Short of an actual wartime deployment, JRTC is as real and as stressful as it gets.
It will be the brigade’s final test before 2020 when they are available for deployment. Although no one knows where the unit will go for sure, many speculate an overseas training opportunity; however, that can change at a moment’s notice depending on the current threat picture.
30 years ago, before the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) began, National Guard units rarely deployed overseas and into harm’s way. There just wasn’t a need. But fast forward to the early 2000s, and two full-scale wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. Army found itself without enough Regular Army soldiers to fill the needs of both campaigns. With a national draft out of the question, the powers at be turned to the National Guard to boost the numbers of U.S. military personnel in-country.
The 256th made two wartime deployments to Iraq in support of the GWOT. The first was in 2004-2005, and the second in 2010.
There are still several things the unit needs to work out before heading into JRTC. At the Squadron level, commanders are working to fill mission-critical roles with existing personnel so they can spend the remaining weekends training them. That not only means recruiting and training new soldiers, but holding onto the existing ones. There is also the ongoing mission of ensuring soldiers’ welfare and morale — two things that are critical to any military organization.
One soldier in particular is just two days away from his separation date. Major Poche, the Squadron’s Operations officer or S-3, and his non-commissioned counterpart MSG Timothy McKnight want to talk with the soldier one last time before he separates, to ensure the he is making the decision for the right reasons.
“I want to retain quality, trained, and motivated soldiers,” Major Poche tells me in an email. “I asked [the soldier] to let me know if there was anything that I could do to rekindle his desire to stay in.”
The S-3 goes on to explain to me that he wants to ensure that, as a leader, he has done everything in his power to set his soldiers up for success — not just within the Guard, but also in life. A former enlisted soldier himself, Major Poche is intimately familiar with the pressures, challenges, and demands that military service places on these young men and women.
As a Guard unit, the soldiers of the 2-108th are closer-knit compared to some Regular Army units. This is because Guard soldiers typically spend a longer period of time in the same unit, sometimes spending their entire careers working with the same men and women. These relationships add to the force’s strength, and it’s one of the things that make the National Guard such a unique organization within the U.S. military. It also means that the officers and senior NCOs of the 2-108th have a lot of opportunities to affect positive change in the lives of young service members, and this is something that the unit’s leaders are passionate about.
“It’s probably one of the soldier’s least favorite drills, but it’s also one of the most important,” says Major Stephen Luebbert, the Squadron’s Executive Officer (XO). “If I have a choice between training a soldier to fire their assigned weapon, or ensuring he or she signs their life insurance paperwork so their family is cared for, then I’m going to make sure they sign their paperwork first.”
Major Luebbert explains that while combat training is important, ensuring the soldiers are fit, healthy, in good standing, and up-to-date on their administrative requirements, is the fundamental objective in peace time.
“Our biggest task is making sure we can successfully mobilize the majority of our soldiers on short-notice” says Major Luebbert. “We can address any missed training opportunities at our mobilization station prior to deployment.”
At the senior staff level, Luebbert, Poche, McKnight and the rest of the officers and senior NCOs are continually fighting the battle to keep soldiers finishing the mundane human resource requirements. Without checking these boxes, soldiers might miss out on promotions or training opportunities, ultimately leaving the unit shorthanded when it comes to leaders.
“It’s actually an exciting year because we are promoting a lot of our enlisted soldiers into leadership roles,” says MSG McKnight. He explains how promoting one senior NCO leaves a vacancy that needs to be filled, creating a ripple effect that allows commanders to promote several Soldiers in relatively quick succession.
*Because the 2-108th is a Cavalry unit, certain organizational designators are different from standard Army units. In this case, a “squadron” is the same size as a battalion, and a “troop” is the same as a company.