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Herald JournalHerald Journal, April 11, 2005

Local soldiers back from Iraq

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Two local soldiers went to Iraq and came back as part of a unit that earned a presidential citation for its work with the Iraqi elections and its job patrolling.

Brooks Borrell of Waverly and Andrew Hirsch of Howard Lake recently returned home from serving in the United States Army National Guard Unit Battery D, 216 Air Defense Artillery, based in Monticello.

The battery began federal active duty Nov. 15, 2003, and deployed to Iraq in March 2004, to assist with security operations in the Baghdad area. There were about 150 people in the unit.

The unit received three months of infantry training in Fort Lewis, Wash., then traveled to the national training center in Fort Irwin, Calif. for about a month, eventually landing in Kuwait March 13, and crossing the Iraqi border April 2.

“We got stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad, adjacent to the BIAP (Baghdad International Airport),” Borrell said, noting throughout the course of their time overseas they did “absolutely everything.”

The unit primarily did security, and for the last approximately five months it was there, the unit patrolled Airport Road, which is the major road that runs from BIAP.

“We were securing the road,” Borrell said. “It was the road they named the most dangerous road in Iraq. There were a lot of car bombs, roadside bombs, pretty much everything.”

The unit was stationed on Airport Road until the end of February. In early March, while an Italian journalist was being escorted to the airport, an Italian intelligence agent was shot on that road.

“That was our road. The guys that took over for us had that incident,” Borrell said. “Regardless of what the media said, that was entirely the right thing to do on their part, because you can’t let cars get close to you, especially at night. You don’t know when they’re going to blow up. When they blow up, they vaporize completely. It’s insane.”

“It’s not like the movies, where they do a bunny hop and come down,” Hirsch added.

They also patrolled farmlands around Baghdad for four months, which was fairly quiet, until the end of that time, when some roadside bombs and rockets were shot off.

They also patrolled the walls and gates of a prison, which had internal MPs (military police) for security inside the facility.

“We weren’t allowed to know anything except that it was a prison,” Borrell said.

Borrell was in one vehicle that got hit by a roadside bomb. The person driving the vehicle still walks with a limp, Borrell noted. Another man in the vehicle got hit with some shrapnel in the face, but was back out the next day.

Hirsch had a roadside bomb go off within the near proximity of him, but noted it did not hit anyone.

Borrell said the mode of detonation meant a lot as to whether a roadside bomb would be effective or not.

“It seemed like a lot of times, the difference between them hitting us and missing is how they detonated it,” Borrell said. “If they used a cell phone, they would try and call it, and it takes a couple seconds to go off, which takes time. The one that blew up on us had a wire running to it, and there was a guy no more than 50 yards away in another canal that we couldn’t see.”

Hirsch had RPGs fired at him and, along with several other people, ended up catching five individuals who were responsible for firing the RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). One of the men caught was a captain in Saddam’s army, and all of the men were sent to a prison.

Even though there were some close calls, all of the members of the Monticello unit returned back home to the United States.

“We didn’t actually lose any soldiers,” Borrell said. “We had one guy get shot in the leg when we were gone (on leave), but we didn’t have any deaths in our unit.”

Bearing temps in the 150s

Even though the actual living conditions, themselves, weren’t too bad, the temperatures some days caused a strain on the soldiers.

“When we got to Kuwait, we had 75-man tents,” Borrell said. “It was ridiculous living there because you didn’t have any privacy, and people that have never moved away from home don’t know how to clean up after themselves, so you’re trying to clean up after them and that wasn’t any fun.”

Temperatures ranged from 153 degrees three days in a row at the dead of summer, to the 90s and lower.

“On the days it got up to 150, it only dropped down to about 95 at night,” Borrell said. “The power kept going off and the air conditioning would go out. We didn’t get much sleep those nights.”

He also noted that while the food wasn’t bad, eating the same thing “got old.”

The primary meal was fast-food type meals – burgers, and chicken curry was also a big thing.

“If you couldn’t find chicken curry, you weren’t looking,” Borrell said laughing.

Hirsch said there were Pakistani and Filipino workers who did laundry and some cooking.

“For the most part, it wasn’t too bad living there,” Borrell said. “It made up for all the times when you went out on patrol and were nervous the whole night. You knew when you got back, you had a nice bed.”

Sometimes, pulling “all-nighters” of patrol was the majority of what the two did. On the average, though, they spent four to six hours of patrol time on Airport Road each day, due to the fact it was more dangerous, and the unit wanted alert people out there working it.

At times, becoming one team can be hard between members of the National Guard and other active duty units.

“Once we proved ourselves, it was alright. They mostly have guys that can’t think for themselves,” Borrell said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just how they’re trained. It’s what they’re used to – if you’re a lower level guy, you don’t argue with the people above you, and we weren’t trained like that at all. If someone made a stupid decision, we’d call them on it. There was a lot of arguing for a long time.”

The biggest thing that uplifted their spirits were the people, and mostly the children.

“If you go out in a bad mood, the kids could always brighten your day,” Borrell said, and added the children speak better English than the adults because they are learning it in school.

Before being activated, Hirsch and Borrell drilled once a month, and two weeks in the summer, originally joining the national guard for college money. Borrell also noted family tradition as a reason he went into the military.

“Usually on Memorial Day, we still get 10 to 13 Borrells that get in uniform and march,” Borrell said. “I’ve had four cousins over there already, as well as a lot of people we both know.”

Borrell graduated from Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Schools in 2000, and Hirsch in 2001. Borrell is the son of Pat and Marilyn Borrell, and Hirsch the son of Lyle and Mary Hirsch.

Iraqi elections a ‘pretty wild’ couple of days

During the Iraqi elections at the end of January, the unit was not able to return to its base, and had to find makeshift homes for three days. Members found themselves out for 99 hours with minimal sleep, sometimes as little as two hours at a time, Borrell said.

“That’s the most sleep-deprived I’ve ever been in my life,” Borrell said.

“On election day, the people weren’t allowed to drive, so it was convenient for us because there could have been hundreds of car bombs,” Borrell said.

“We stayed in an old abandoned building for the couple hours of down time,” Hirsch said, adding people would keep watch while others slept.

Along with the strong American military presence during the elections, the Iraqi police also played a big role in keeping the peace.

“There were several times when the IP (Iraqi Police) really proved themselves,” Borrell said, noting they were in groups of about seven, armed with one weapon each, with no back-up ammunition, trying to keep the peace.

Borrell said, at times, toward the end, his group would be ready to come in, and they would be told to stay out for six more hours.

“That was pretty wild,” Borrell said about the entire election process, noting it went a lot smoother than anticipated.

Borrell recalled driving around the day of the election, and having many Iraqi people hold their fingers up at them. They found out later the people had to dip their finger in some ink to show they voted.

“I’d say 90 to 95 percent of the people we passed had ink on their fingers and wanted to show us,” he said. “I think we had 2,000 people vote in our polling station, which was about 80 percent of our area.”

Presidential citation

For its work with the elections, as well as on Airport Road, the unit received a presidential citation, which is the highest award a unit can get.

“That’s a pretty big honor,” Borrell said. “We were pretty excited about it.”

Being back home

Both agreed they are glad to be back home, and are glad for the strong showing of support they have received from their communities.

“Our fathers are from the Vietnam era, and not that they necessarily went, but the idea of them coming back and people not supporting them, as opposed to people nowadays – even if they’re against the war – at least they support us for defending their country, which is nice,” Borrell said.

During leave time around Christmas, Borrell stopped in Dallas, Texas and was met by several hundred people, who come out every day to greet units that come home for leave.

Both Hirsch and Borrell made it home on leave a day earlier than planned, and had some fun surprising family members and friends.

“It’s really fun to get a reaction from someone when they think you are around the world,” Borrell said. “Mom was about the only one that didn’t scream or cry. She was in shock until the next morning.”

Hirsch is in the National Guard yet until January, and Borrell gets out in November. For the time being, neither one can work for at least a month, due to guard commitments.

Hirsch is planning on going back to school at St. Cloud Technical College this fall, and Borrell is looking to get into the construction business.

Borrell compared the experience of being in the guards to that of a fraternity, where there are so many different personalities and types of people that are all part of one larger body.

“All the guys you meet have different professions, and do different things,” he said. “If you made a yellow pages of our unit, you could build houses, condos, anything you want, get loans, manage money – there is somebody from every walk of life over there. You learn a lot about other people’s professions.”

Parade for the Monticello unit

A parade in honor of the Monticello National Guard unit will take place Saturday, April 30 at 9 a.m. in Monticello.

The parade will go through town, ending at the Monticello High School, where a welcome home celebration will take place. The public is welcome and invited to attend.

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