CAMP TAJI, Iraq -- At a desert outpost about 20 miles north of Baghdad, three units of Wisconsin National Guardsmen deployed with the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team hope something will grow in the barren environment: Iraq's future.
The units, Company A, 32nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, Onalaska; the 108th Forward Support Company, Sussex; and Battery A, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, Racine, assumed responsibility May 12 for several operations at the theater internment facility reconciliation center at Camp Taji.
The soldiers' 12-hour workdays include guarding detainees and making sure each one is treated with dignity and respect. "If the detainees are happy then they are compliant," said 1st Lt. Matthew Young, Sturtevant, Wis., a shift officer in charge at Taji. "If they are compliant everyone is safer." Young is assigned to Battery A, 1-121 Field Artillery.
Long workdays make personal time hard to find, but the soldiers manage.
Some relax by talking with family and friends over the Internet. Soldiers can get Internet access in their containerized housing units, mobile home-sized structures that house two soldiers in each of the three separate rooms. "It's really nice to use the Internet, if I didn't have that, it would be a lot tougher here," said Sgt. Andrea Renkas, Little Chute, Wis., assigned to the guard force that runs day-to-day operations in the facility run by the 32nd BSTB.
Soldiers also use their free time to explore what Camp Taji has to offer, mainly shops run by local and foreign merchants. Camp Taji also has a main Post Exchange that carries everyday items soldiers need. Soldiers also can find time to stay in shape with a workout.
One soldier has a more unusual way to relax, digging around scrapyards close to his living area. Spc. Mick Jaynes, Cedarburg, Wis., found souvenirs to bring home - three tanker helmets abandoned in the back of a scrapped amphibious vehicle. "When I saw these I was like 'Oh, yeah!'" said the guard with the 32nd BSTB.
The helmets will be a physical reminder of time spent at Taji, but Jaynes and other soldiers at Taji hope to bring a less tangible souvenir home with them, too: the knowledge that their mission here has helped Iraq become a better place.
"I think there is always going to be some apprehension in people's minds about what is going on over here," said Battery A's 1st Sgt. Bryan Debaets, McHenry, Ill. "But they don't understand the big picture; this is one piece of that big picture and this is part of the process of turning the country back over to the Government of Iraq, to make them a successful country again."
"It will let these people live the way they need to live, and not live in fear for their lives every day," he predicted.
Even in the challenging environment of Camp Taji, hard work and the Wisconsin values these Guardsmen brought with them will help plant the seeds of a better future for Iraq. "It is an honor and a privilege to have such a professional unit," said Capt. Dale Sack, Clarks Grove, Minn., commanding officer of Battery A. "Everyone is doing a great job."