By Tech. Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral
Joint Force Headquarters - Colorado
COLORADO - While many kids dream of the latest toys, video games and bikes they want to find under the Christmas tree this year, many military children dream of something much more meaningful: they want their mommies and daddies to come home from war. For the children of the 220th Military Police Company, their wishes came true on Dec. 21, when the Colorado Army National Guard unit returned from Iraq.
Like any other military deployment, there were two resounding themes to this unit's story: its mission, and the lives of the families left behind.
According to Capt. Adam Reed, 220th MP Company commander, the unit received its mobilization orders in October 2007, which gave the Soldiers about 90 days to prepare for their mission. "Most units get 12 to 18 months to prepare a unit for deployment. However, with a great headquarters and operations section, we were able not only to develop a well-prepared training plan and acquire the required equipment for mobilization, but also set a standard for other units to follow," said Reed. "[Our] intense training gelled the company into a cohesive fighting force that was ready for Iraq."
While deployed, the 220th MP Company was assigned to Task Force 134 at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, and was responsible for detainee operations, ensuring the care and safeguarding of detainees in conjunction with the Government of Iraq. "Not an easy task when you don't speak the language and you are guarding some of the most hardened detainees," said Reed, noting that many detainees were captured after improvised explosive attacks and attacks against coalition forces.
Running a Theater Internment Facility is no simple task and requires a lot of teamwork and thinking outside the box, he said. "We have introduced numerous counterinsurgency programs into the war within the wire [on base]."
Among those programs were classes taught by local Iraqis in which detainees learned to read and write; work programs such as construction, woodworking and art; and civic and religious programs taught by local Islam clerics.
"While we were there we learned a lot about the culture of the country," said Staff Sgt. Frank Collier. "Working on the TIF, we saw a lot of the bad elements of the country... but we also saw the changes in them while they were in the detainee camps. We could see where they were staring to accept that we weren't there to take over their country; that we were there really to help them."
Among its many accomplishments, the 220th MP Company coordinated and operated a detainee visitation program that enabled family members to visit their loved ones interned there. But it wasn't just about the face time, Reed said. "Pictures colored by detainees' children were hung throughout the visitation center to help soften the environment and keep the area family-friendly."
While operating the visitation center, 220th Soldiers created a children's corner with a television, a DVD player, a coloring area and a playground, and also allowed the detainees' artistic skills to be observed by their families.
Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Brannon introduced the first sewing program that culminated into the hugely popular "Cropper Camel." The stuffed animals were sewn by detainees and later given to their families.
The 220th also enabled more than 18,000 visitors to participate in video teleconferences with loved ones interned at the Camp Bucca Theater Internment Facility located in southern Iraq.
As to the success of these programs, Reed pointed out the recidivism rate of less than .5 percent over the last year, the lowest in recent history.
"While we were there, more detainees were released than any other time before, so I think things are getting better between Americans and Iraqis right now," said Collier. "I'm really positive about the future of that country."
Among the more than 100 Soldiers who were welcomed back, Dec. 21, was Cpl. Dan Cowles, who changed units just so he could serve in Iraq.
According to his mother Fran, "He always felt good about what he was doing." In fact, he was proud to be counted among the veterans in his family. (His father Jim served in Vietnam and later retired from the U.S. Army.) Both parents spoke highly of their son as they listed his many experiences, including re-enlisting under Army Gen. David Petraeus on the Fourth of July.
Cowles' wife Larissa has been cleaning house to keep her mind occupied. She can't wait for him to be home so he can continue to help raise their two-year-old daughter Danee. "I'm looking forward to all his energy. He's a big, giant ball of energy and that was hard to be without all year."
Sgt. 1st Class Denise Drummond left her husband and three-year-old daughter Hailey at home when she went to Iraq. "We were very honest about everything with her," said Drummond as she described telling her daughter of her deployment.
"It was a struggle, it was a definite struggle, but I also know I am not the first mother to deploy, nor will I be the last," Drummond said as she described how she stayed connected to her daughter despite the miles between them. "I wrote her lots of letters, strictly to her. She painted pictures and sent me stuff. We talked all the time. She liked getting letters a lot."
As Hailey understood it, her mother was gone looking for camels at first. Then, as she started to grasp the situation more clearly, she told people her mom was in prison in Iraq.
Exercising amazing patience and judgment few other parents can imagine, Drummond opted not to take leave mid-tour, because she didn't want to confuse her daughter by suddenly appearing and disappearing again. "She wouldn't have taken it well, and I don't know that I would have taken it well either," she said.
"It's what we signed up for, it's what we do," said Drummond's husband, 1st Sgt. Michael Simco. "Really, more than anything, it just was accepting that's the lifestyle we chose, and that our daughter and I would be okay while mom was gone. She [Hailey] has been a true champ in it all. She is the most resilient three-, four-year-old kid that one can imagine ... and has stood stronger than her dad at times."
"Every time I would call home and talk to her, because she had just turned 3 when I left, I could hear her blossoming and growing and doing really well and being really resilient, and I owe that all to him [Michael], the fact that he took everything very well and in stride," said Drummond. "He just kept very upbeat, which in turn helped her stay very upbeat."
Drummond said their friends and family really made all the difference for Hailey, as they took on some of her mothering roles in her absence.
"Michael, I owe everything to him, because I could have never done this and done anything well had I not had him supporting everything at home," she said. "I knew that he was taking care of everything and that we had enough support to back him up when he needed it. That allowed me to work, to do what I had to do."
Mother, father and now four-year-old daughter are currently bonding over Drummond's 30-day leave period.
Staff Sgt. Nicholette Marx has always been very independent, so when her husband, Master Sgt. Brandon Marx deployed for a year, the initial transition was stunning.
"I've always been the Soldier," she said, as she described the shock of being the spouse left behind. "It's a lot harder ... you find out you're having to do double duty and pick up slack – I have a great appreciation for spouses now.
Marx was a founding member of the so-called "Angry Wives Club," a group of 220th spouses who went out to dinner every two weeks to talk, advise each other, relax and just have a good night out.
"Through this deployment I've gotten a lot more friends," said Marx, who was actively involved in the 220th MP Company's Family Readiness Group here at home. With her insider perspective, Marx was able to help non-military spouses navigate some of the challenges they faced, particularly since a large number of deployed Soldiers were traditional Guardsmen (normally only obligated one weekend a month an two weeks a year) with civilian jobs and lives extending far beyond the military.
Her husband, Master Sgt. Brandon Marx, sees many benefits in being married to a Soldier, and thinks that fact made his deployment with the 220th MP Company easier. Just the fact that he and Nicholette are both Soldiers keeps them connected to a large degree, he said. "She understood what we were doing. If I couldn't make a phone call or I couldn't get in touch with her, she knew that it was kind of the Army thing. It's much easier to explain things."
But being married in the military doesn't come without heartaches.
"On the flip side, she deployed for 15 months, she was home for six and I deployed for a little over 12, so that made it hard. We truly missed almost 36 months of our lives," he said. "But we chose to do this. We're here because we want to be here ... We have an obligation I think to serve. [Deployment] does make it difficult but since we all know what's going on, it's a lot easier."