Oklahoma National Guard unit to return soon

Saturday, July 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ An estimated 200 soldiers from Oklahoma's 179th Infantry have completed their assignment in the Persian Gulf area and are expected back in the state before the end of the month, officials said.

Soldiers from the 179th's Companies A and B ``are now just waiting for an airplane to fly us out of here,'' Maj. Mike Thompson told the Tulsa World in an e-mail interview.

Thompson, the task force commander, said when the 179th received word in August it was headed for the Persian Gulf, he never imagined his troops would be fighting side-by-side with active duty soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

``Most of us thought that we would be limited or relegated to support roles because we were National Guard soldiers,'' Thompson said.

Although the unit went into the combat zone in May after President Bush said major fighting was over, Company B of the 179th found itself in repeated skirmishes.

Four of the unit's soldiers have been awarded the Bronze Star and two won the Army Commendation Medal with Valor for their performance.

At least six others are being considered for the Bronze Star with Valor.

Company B, known by the call sign ``Battle,'' inflicted heavy damage on the Iraqi resistance, the 179th commander said.

However, 1st Sgt. Jeff Mapes said, ``The most important success of this mission is also the biggest success. Every member of the 179th is coming home.''

Soldiers suffered only minor scrapes, cuts and shrapnel wounds, the unit reported.

``God was definitely with us,'' Thompson said.

Company B is headquartered in Alva and is commanded by Capt. Colby Wyatt of Alva.

Company A is based in Oklahoma City and is commanded by Capt. Doug Merritt.

The unit was deployed to the Persian Gulf area in January for a six-month rotation. Company B first went to Kuwait, and Company A to Saudi Arabia to provide security for Patriot missile batteries to protect interests in Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The soldiers were then assigned to Iraq with the same duties, but assumed combat operations in May when the threat of Iraqi scud attacks diminished.

Combat duties out of Taji, Iraq, included clearing islands along the Tigris River where the ``disposition of the enemy was still unknown,'' Thompson said.

Contact with family members in the states was ``intermittent at best'' while the soldiers were in a combat mode, Thompson said, but that has changed since they completed their mission and moved from Taji to Kuwait to await a flight home.

``All soldiers now have access to e-mail and phones. We are all extremely excited. Lots of changes since we left. Babies born. High school graduations. Anniversaries. Lots of catching up to do,'' he said.

While Company B engaged in combat, Company A also played a major role in support of the war, Thompson said.