News: Wisconsin engineer unit arrives on US soil from Afghanistan
Story by Vaughn Larson
FORT BLISS, Texas - The 147 soldiers of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 229th Engineer Company are back on U.S. soil after nine months serving in Afghanistan.
The Prairie Du Chien, Wis.-based unit arrived late June 30 to Fort Bliss, Texas, where they will go through the demobilization process before returning home to Wisconsin.
A horizontal engineering unit, the 229th was responsible for expanding forward operating bases and combat outposts as well as building and improving roads, helicopter pads and other surfaces. Their work helped to provide increased mobility on the combat roads and trails of Kandahar province. The unit was also involved in the construction of persistent surveillance balloon systems that kept a watchful eye on the battle space.
"The company, the soldiers did an unbelievable job," said Maj. Jesse Augustine, the 229th commander. "Because so many of the National Guard and Reserve Component operators are professional operators — either heavy equipment carpenters, or mechanics on the civilian side or as technicians for the Wisconsin Army National Guard — the level of professionalism is unmatched.
"I would be hard-pressed to say there was a better engineer unit in theater while we were there," Augustine continued. "They were unbelievable."
The engineers extended two forward operating bases, built seven roads in Panawa'i District and earned 23 Combat Action Badges in the process. Before leaving Afghanistan, the company conducted 586 missions. Its combat circulation team alone completed 150 missions.
"Being good for one mission is relatively easy," Augustine said. "Being good every mission, every day is a testament to the work ethic these soldiers carry with them from their upbringing growing up in the upper Midwest as farm kids, as country kids, as well-parented kids."
Sgt. Mitch Engelke, of Bloomington, Wis., who was on his first deployment, was one of the soldiers on the combat circulation team which drove more than 8,000 miles supporting the company's three other platoons.
"I had a great team," he said shortly after getting off the plane at Fort Bliss. "It was an easy deployment just because everybody stayed professional and positive."
Engelke said he was most looking forward to getting back to Wisconsin to be with his wife and two children. Same for Sgt. 1st Class Hayden Eckelberg, of Tomah, Wis., who has three children and a wife waiting for him back home.
"It was a good mission," he said. "I would say it was everything I would have wanted as a horizontal engineer."
"We accomplished every task that we were given no matter how big or how small," said Master Sgt. Joshua Bowers, a school teacher from Beloit, Wis. "They worked real hard throughout the deployment. Real hard. We didn't take many days off, and a lot of days we worked from sunup to sundown, and they did a real good job."
Waiting to greet the soldiers as they stepped off the plane were Wisconsin National Guard senior leaders, including leaders from the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin adjutant general, and Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the assistant adjutant general for Army, even donned the 229th Engineer Company belt buckles presented to them when the unit deployed last September.
"We're not only proud of what you did overseas, we're grateful, truly grateful to God almighty to have every one of you back safe and sound," Dunbar told the troops.
Meanwhile, Anderson and Command Sgt. Maj. Brad Shields praised the unit for their service and sacrifice in Afghanistan and urged them to take full advantage of the benefits they have now earned as veterans.
"I want you to know how proud we are of each and every one of you, and the way you represented the United States of America is just tremendous," said Shields. "You went and did a job that not everybody would do."
The 229th will conclude its demobilization training in the coming days before returning to Wisconsin for good in mid-July. The unit previously deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and Operation Desert Storm in 1990.