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WDTV NewsChannel Five(W. Virginia) February 25, 2004

All 201st Troops Deployed Overseas

By Brittany Morehouse

Remaining 201st soldiers at Fort Drum in New York boarded a plane on Wednesday for duty in Iraq. Members from all batteries of the 201st Field Artillery Unit- Fairmont, Elkins, Morgantown, Kingwood, Ronceverte and Hinton- will be overseas for up to 18 months. The Hometown troops will undertake an operation entirely different than what they've been trained to do for many years. Their new mission is deemed one of the most dangerous and deadly of all soldiers' duties.

"It's going to be a dangerous mission," said Major Thomas Randall Betiste. "There's no doubt about it. The enemy is terrorists now."

Members of the 201st will transform from field artillery soldiers, troops who fight from miles away, into convoy security, troops who encounter the enemy up close.

"I'm not in the same comfort zone," said Sergeant John Oliverio. "We will be using skills we've all been taught...but are not experts on. We went from covering a larger part of the map to a much smaller distance. It's definately out of my element."

Military experts at GlobalSecurity.com say convoy missions face the most attacks and suffer the highest casualties of all American troops in Iraq.

"[Members of the 201st] will be protecting convoys as they travel from point A to point B," said Patrick Garrett, who updates the website's posting of deploying and returning troops. "They will be walking through some of the worst parts in Iraq, which are not very secure. They will be scouting ahead...determining if there's an active threat. If so, they are the ones who decide to attack."

One of the most difficult tasks convoy security groups must perform is detecting IED's (Improved Explosive Devices), explosives disguised as ordinary objects on the desert.

The West Virginia Guardsmen also face this new intimidating mission under the pressure of having less training time under their belts. They were validated at Fort Drum's training facility in just 33 days, faster than all units preceding them.

"Normally," said Garrett, "guard units have four to five months of training once they know they are going somewhere in advance."

"I had no doubt we'd be validated quickly," said Ronald Eagle, Chief Warrant Officer for the 201st. "We knew we had the best soldiers because West Virginia troops have been tested over and over through the years. And I think we've shown that here."

Despite the record-breaking validation time, soldiers say they aren't completely ready.

"Are we prepared? I'm not going to say 100 percent," said Sergeant Frank Egress. "But we're gonna get more in country that I think is more hands on stuff. That should give the guys' more confidence."

"This unit is not unique in that it is being asked to retrain," said Garrett. "But at the same time, the methods of their operations [require soldiers] who have trained for a long period of time, not six weeks."

The unit's medical support system is very unstable. They've been trying to recruit a team surgeon since they were activated last December.

"It's been difficult to find one," said Major Clay Coatney. "They don't grow on trees. We would have rather have had a surgeon but thank goodness, we found at least a physician."

Last week they finally secured a physician, who will have to learn on the job since he had no time to train with the unit. Military officials say he is headed for a great learning curve but in the meantime, soldiers will still be covered medically.

Perhaps the most unpredictable predicament of all, is the instability of the current situation in Iraq. According to Garrett, the possibility a civil war will break out is very serious. So Hometown troops might be heading for the most difficult phase of this war. Nevertheless, they are determined to do their job.

"By all means," said Egress, "we're soldiers. We can accomplish whatever mission we have before us."

"We're going over there with the mindset," said Major Gary Coffey, "of helping and protecting the people. And we're just itching to do that."

"We are the best soldiers in the nation," said Specialist Michael Hunter. "And that's why they brought us in."


Copyright 2004, Withers Broadcasting of West Virginia