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955th Engineers return from Iraq
955th Engineers return from Iraq

ABOVE: Amy Davis and niece Makenna Campbell from Linn, Mo, wait for the return of soldiers from the 955th Engineer Company, an Army Reserve construction unit at Fort Leonard Wood. BELOW: Capt. Crystal Lauver uncased her unit's guidon Wednesday morning.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (March 25, 2009) — After a year in Iraq, 155 members of an Army Reserve construction unit based at Fort Leonard Wood returned Wednesday morning to cheers and hugs from family and friends.

Wednesday’s ceremony for the 955th Engineer Company packed Swift Gym. Unlike active duty units that often return to installations far from the hometowns of the soldiers, most members of the 955th Engineer Company, known for many years by its “pipe man” mascot as a pipeline engineer unit, live in southwest Missouri and many live near Fort Leonard Wood. Other detachments of the unit are located in St. Louis and Cape Girardeau; the unit totals 282 soldiers, of which about 55 percent went to Iraq.

The company, which was an artillery unit until 1995 when it retrained to do pipe work, has specialized since 2007 in construction and built sniper screens all over its region of Iraq. The 955th Engineers received the 2008 Engineer Unit award for its work in Iraq, according to the company commander, Capt. Crystal Lauver.

“They only offer that award to one engineer unit every year and we won. You have a lot to be proud of,” Lauver told the assembled family members. “I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about all the great things we’ve done, but the best thing we’ve done this year is the soldiers standing behind me brought every single soldier home.”

Capt. Crystal Lauver, commander of the 955th Engineer Company, uncases her unit's guidon. Among the family members waiting for their soldiers to return were relatives of Staff Sgt. Brian Slagle from Springfield. An Ohio native, Slagle came to Fort Leonard Wood years ago for training and remained in the area, so his family members came from both the Ozarks and from Ohio.

“He’s been in the military for 18 years; this is his second tour of duty in Iraq and of course we’re all very proud of him and are glad he’s coming home,” said Cheryl Slagle, the soldier’s mother, who lives near Dayton, Ohio, and drove nine hours for the welcome home ceremony.

“It’s been very tense and emotional. Just hearing from him and knowing that he’s been safe and everything has been a great help, but it’s been a strain and we’re glad it’s over,” she said. “Through phone calls and e-mails he contacted us, and of course he contacted his wife Theresa and she kept us in touch with everything that was going on with him when we couldn’t hear from him. We had very good communications with him while he was there; the Army done a great job.”

“I know the best part: he’s coming home!” said Slagle’s niece, Kimberly Scarr, who also came from Ohio. “He was the greatest uncle I could ever want!”

Other family members agreed that serving in the military is worth the sacrifices.

“Brian’s stepchildren are both in the military; we’re a military family and we’re really proud of all of our soldiers,” said Slagle’s wife Theresa Slagle. “He comes up here (to Fort Leonard Wood) once a month and two weeks out of the year he comes for training. It’s not that difficult; he really loves the drive, he loves the outdoors, and that’s why he’s still in Missouri and not in Ohio because he loves the Missouri hunting and the outdoors.”

Slagle’s situation with a wife living 90 miles away in Springfield and extended family members living in other states is only one example of the complexities faced by Army Reserve and National Guard units during deployments. For 2nd Lt. Joseph Rohman, the rear detachment commander who remained behind to support families of the deploying soldiers, having access to e-mail was critical since some of his unit’s family members live as far away as Texas or Washington.

“My primary mission as the rear detachment commander is to keep the deployed family members as informed as possible what’s going on with their soldiers. As the rear detachment commander, you are the primary family readiness group liaison, so once a week we would make calls and shoot out emails constantly,” Rohman said. “It’s crazy. An active-duty rear detachment commander has the luxury of having all the family members on one base, all together. If you want to call them in for a meeting you could do so, probably with little obstacles. However, as a rear detachment commander, our soldiers are from all over the country … It is literally impossible to bring them in for a meeting.”

Rohman said the 955th Engineer Company’s higher headquarters, the 416th Engineer Command, has begun a new program which allows Army Reserve solider families to be flown in once per year to get input and discuss issues related to the deployments.

Keeping family members aware of what their soldiers’ unit is doing is critical, Rohman said. One especially difficult task was leveling a partially demolished building that has become a sniper nest for insurgents to shoot at soldiers.

“There’s a giant blue building that the insurgents had been working out of for the past two years. They had actually rocket attacks on it from some of our fighter jets and they still couldn’t bring this building down, so they tasked the 955th Engineers to bring the building down and they did it in less than a week, whereas the fighter jets had been trying for years to do it,” Rohman said.

Lauver said that building was an old Iraqi headquarters building that had been hit by seven different improvised rocket assisted mortars.

“It was just destroyed and a real eyesore and we needed that space to put living areas on,” Lauver said. “The unit before us said, ‘Boy, this isn’t structurally sound, we’re not sure how to go about this,’ but my first platoon with Staff Sgt. Collins and Lt. Smiley got together and they came up with a plan.”

The plan called for demolishing the building in six weeks, but it was actually demolished and hauled off in 12 days.

Lauver said her unit’s toughest assignment was protecting the al-Ban apartment complex near Abu Ghraib from sniper attacks. After working 24 hours per day, the company put up 964 T-walls, 400 Missouri barriers and five guard towers, as well as building a road and a culvert, all of which was “outside the wire” of the regular defensive perimeter.

Regular work of the unit included building many miles of sniper screening around many different forward operating bases and main bases, and also building the largest helicopter landing field in Iraq.

“Sniper screens are basically very tall walls that they line roads with so that the insurgents can’t see the convoys that are passing through or anybody basically walking around,” Rohman said. “They put up I don’t know how many miles of sniper screens. That was one of their primary missions, so they did it year-round.”

Other tasks are less glamorous but just as crucial. Lauver and Rohman said route sanitation became a key part of the work of the 955th Engineers.

“It was the first time ever in the history of the Iraq war that we put route sanitation with route clearance, so we would roll two dump trucks and a 2.5-yard loader which would go out with the route clearance team,” Lauver said.

The loader isn’t designed to be driven regularly on roads but that became part of its work.

“It’s supposed to be loaded up on a vehicle and driven to where it’s supposed to go. We put several hundred miles on these things, and just keeping up with the maintenance of them was very difficult,” Lauver said. “My maintenance crew was very ingenious and kept this stuff rolling.”

Keeping roadsides free of trash and debris is important because of what can be hidden in the debris. Burying improvised explosive devices in roadside trash has become a common tactic of Iraqi insurgents to blow up convoys and kill American soldiers.

“One of their primary missions was route sanitation, removing the debris from the sides of the roads so that other convoys, when they pass by, don’t have to worry about whether that empty box of MREs is an IED or whether it is just trash. It’s basically a glorified trash detail but it’s important nonetheless,” Rohman said.

Lauver’s civilian work is for the VFW national headquarters in Kansas City and she’ll return to that post in a few weeks after visiting family and friends. She told the assembled family members that anyone with concerns during or following a deployment is welcome to contact staff members of a Department of Defense program known as www.militaryonesource.com for referral to counselors who can help.

“If you need to talk to somebody for any reason, anyone in this room can call — anyone, at any time, 24 hours a day. They don’t tell me what you talk about, it’s completely confidential. At any time my soldiers, family and friends can call that number, and if you need to talk, please, by all means, do so,” Lauver said.

Speaking after the welcome-home ceremony, Lauver said taking care of troops doesn’t end when they return from a deployment.

“When you go on that website, there’s a toll-free phone number that’s open 24-7, and it’s completely confidential,” Lauver said. “I think it’s really important. Reintegration with soldiers is sometimes a little more difficult than we expected and I really encourage them to call that number … 2 a.m., it doesn’t matter. Just call and talk for a little bit, feel better and have a healthy life.”

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