Tag Archives: Iraq

Boxing gloves help amputees learn strength and confidence

By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

For the more than 1,000 Soldiers who’ve lost a limb during combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, the road to recovery is long and hard. Learning how to walk, use the restroom, cook, shop and change the baby’s diaper again requires retraining the body, mind and spirit. And one of the best ways to accomplish this training, according to a team at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., is with boxing gloves.

“This is more than just going on a trip or playing sports, it’s about giving [amputee] Soldiers life, and giving back a sense of normalcy after their procedure,” said Harvey Naranjo, the Military Adaptive Sports Program coordinator at Walter Reed. “We are providing a treatment, not just a fun extracurricular activity. Our goal is for them to learn everything they need to learn so they can apply it once they leave here.”

Sgt. Eric Hunter (right) practices punch combinations with David Sheehi, a volunteer coach with the boxing adaptive sports program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., in July.
Sgt. Eric Hunter (right), who lost a leg in combat, practices punch combinations to help regain his balance with David Sheehi, a volunteer coach with the boxing adaptive sports program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in July. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

The program, housed under the rehabilitation department at the nation’s premier center for wounded warrior care, is designed to help service members learn to use different muscles to compensate for the loss of a limb. Through the varied mechanics of sports such as archery, rowing, skiing and lacrosse, combined with field trips into real-world settings, Soldiers develop strength and agility, especially those learning to walk with prostheses, Naranjo said. But nothing develops balance and confidence like adaptive boxing, said Sgt. Eric Hunter of the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky., a recent program participant.

“The hardest thing for me with my prosthetic was just being confident in myself,” he said. “I was able to stand up. But in my head, I guess, I was just scared to. Definitely, boxing has helped build confidence in my balance. When you first come in here, you can throw maybe one punch, and then you’re falling down, trying to gather your balance again. After being down here, I’m pretty much able to stand up the whole time. I may lose my balance a couple times, but it’s been a tremendous improvement.”

That confidence helps those in the program be better NCOs, said Staff Sgt. Nick Lavery, a program participant from the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“I think this program creates a better leader, and it trains future leaders as they are developing into NCOs,” he said. “It breeds mental toughness and confidence in what your body is able to do. It’s a direct translation to what we do professionally: You’re building a skill set that you’re able to take back to your professional environment.”

The training also develops a different style of leadership, Lavery said.

“It’s a humbling sport for sure,” he said. “A lot of military guys are type-A, confident dudes, and they don’t want to necessarily take a risk or the chance of going into a situation where they may not feel so superior. But once you’re able to get past that kind of mental block, and you take that humbled approach, you’ll realize huge benefits.”

 

Intense — physically and mentally

Though the program trains participants in the basics of boxing, the goal is not to create the next Floyd Mayweather Jr., said David Sheehi, a boxing coach who volunteers with the program.

“It’s not about fighting. We’re not really trying to teach them how to go into the ring and do this for a living,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is just use the sport in a positive way — the fitness part of it. In boxing, those athletes are some of the fittest in the world. When you try to train a football player or baseball player to be a boxer, they just can’t do it. They’ll go three or four minutes and just get tired out.”

Boxing provides a physical and mental workout that is not easily matched, Sheehi said.

Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan Donnelly (left) practices punch combinations with Michael Martin, a volunteer coach with Walter Reed's boxing adaptive sports program. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)
Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan Donnelly (left) practices punch combinations with Michael Martin, a volunteer coach with Walter Reed’s boxing adaptive sports program. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

“It’s a very strenuous activity, and it keeps them in shape without running,” he said. “A lot of them can’t run yet, and they can’t do the ellipticals or bicycles yet either. So what do we do? What we do is we work the upper body. It works just as well, it burns just as many calories as just doing the lower body, and it keeps their weight down.”

The intensity surprises many, said Sgt. Christopher Hemwall, a participant formerly with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.

“My first day, I spent two hours working down here,” he said. “The next day, I woke up, and I couldn’t move my left arm or my back at all — I was so sore. So that was surprising. No one warned me about that.”

Because participants don’t fight each other — they work individually with coaches on various punch positions and combinations — even those with traumatic brain injury can participate and reap the benefits, Sheehi said.

“They never spar. We have no contact at all,” he said. “Because the purpose of this is not for competition, it’s therapy, that’s why it’s very safe, even for TBI patients. Originally, they didn’t even want TBI patients to touch this — no way! So we had to show them that it helps TBI patients with the thinking process as we throw numbers of combinations out.”

The moves and training also reinforce soldiering skills many participants feel have faded as they’ve worked through the laborious rehabilitation process, Sheehi said.

“A lot of them feel vulnerable now that they have a prosthesis or are missing a limb,” he said. “So we show them how to dodge a punch and how to counter a punch. It doesn’t matter [that they’ve lost a limb], because all the power comes from your hips, not the legs. As long as they’ve got that, they can do this and be just as good at it as someone with uninjured legs and arms. When they see that, you can see the look in their face: ‘Wow, I am somebody. I can do just like I did before.’”

Hemwall, for example, was looking to regain his agility through the training.

“The biggest reason I was doing it was learning the stance, the movement,” he said. “I’m not so much worried about how to take a hit or how to throw a punch, but I’m trying to learn how to move lightly on my feet again now that I have a prosthetic. I like to think that I used to be pretty quick and agile, and I’d like to get back to that.”

The training is also helping him return to form as a role model for those he will lead.

“It’s helping me get back into physical shape, and being an NCO, you’ve got to lead by example,” Hemwall said. “If you are not in shape, then that’s what your Soldiers will be. Boxing teaches you discipline.”

 

Light at the end of the tunnel

Oftentimes, the most significant injuries participants have to tackle are emotional or psychological, Naranjo said.

“I had one patient who couldn’t walk on what we call shorties — a patient with significant limb loss, we put them on these little stubbies to learn how to walk and we graduate up, up, up,” he said. “For some of them, it’s really difficult to walk around, especially if they used to be 6 feet tall. Well, one patient would never get out of his chair; he would never use his stubbies. But if you don’t learn to use your stubbies, then you won’t be able to develop the core muscles required to walk.

“So we were at this restaurant, and this guy was with his buddies. But the ramp was too narrow for him to get up with his wheelchair. But he saw his buddies — all amputees with prostheses — getting out of their chairs and going up into the restaurant. So this guy had to do it, too. He walked for the first time in public so that he could be with his peers and participate. Long story short, he’s now a Paralympian.”

Sheehi recalled an even more dramatic transformation.

“We had a female Soldier come through here who had been injured about 3 months beforehand. She really just did not want to talk to anybody; she was still in shock,” he said. “When I talked to her, she really didn’t want anything to do with it (boxing). It took a couple times for her to try, but once she did it, she opened up like a flower. Everybody in the entire room could not believe that she was talking, she was having a fun time, she was enjoying herself. This opened her up. She saw light at the end of the tunnel.”

And that’s the whole point of the program, Naranjo said — give recovering Soldiers and NCOs hope that they can do everything and anything again.

“This is as valid a treatment as any other medical discipline that is out there. It’s not all fun and games,” he said. “It lets us assess their full function outside the clinic. How did they navigate the airport? How did they use the restroom? If they were on a bus trip and it only had one of those tiny little bathrooms, how did that quadruple amputee use the restroom? Oh, the baby is crying on the bus and needs a diaper change. Can he change that diaper with one arm? On that bus? So we are assessing their whole ability to function in all those little things that we usually take for granted.”

And though the program is designed to teach independence, it is only together that Soldiers actually heal, Lavery said.

“Nobody’s here to embarrass anybody or beat anybody up,” he said. “It’s about us all getting better and growing both in the sport as well as individual Soldiers.”

By Example: Special Forces NCO prepared his mind, body for combat

By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

This story is part of a periodic NCO Journal feature that takes a closer look at an Army award in an NCO’s career. This month we focus on the Silver Star.

Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay is the Special Forces Advisor to the Alaska National Guard, 196th Infantry Brigade, Fort Shafter, Hawaii. But on Sept. 10, 2007, he was a Sergeant First Class serving as detachment communications sergeant with Operational Detachment Alpha 083, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) when he earned the Silver Star for actions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in Samarra, Iraq.

“We had received intelligence that there was a weapons cell and a training cell in the outlying deserts of Samarra, Iraq,” Lindsay said. “So we did a mission using two Black Hawks, and we put down outside of the village. We had to put down in an alternate landing zone because the pilot saw that the original landing zone was a giant marsh, so that threw our plan into chaos.”

Then-Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay kneels after a firefight that re-took a village in Iraq. (Photo courtesy Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay)
Then-Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay kneels after a firefight that re-took a village in Iraq. (Photo courtesy Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay)

The change in landing zones meant the Black Hawk had to land less than 30 meters from the enemy, throwing any element of surprise out the window. With the dust causing brown-out conditions, Lindsay, along with Staff Sgt. Jarion Halbisengibbs and Capt. Matthew Chaney took fire immediately. Iraqi police were supposed to take the lead on the mission, but with the poor conditions and bullets flying, the Iraqis froze, leaving the three Americans to take on the enemy force.

“We fought our way into the nearest building,” Lindsay said. “We used a grenade to enter the building because we saw personnel and weapons on the inside. We followed the grenade in and we took heavy fire from that first room. I was shot in my stomach, and the two guys I was with, both were also shot. We returned fire, and we continued to engage the enemy through the house.”

All three were then hit by an enemy grenade at close range. All three were seriously injured, and Lindsay and Chaney were blown out of the house.

“I thought I was in a little bit worse than trouble because I knew was hit in the stomach,” Lindsay said. “I couldn’t tell how bad. There was some bile coming up in my throat. Bile and blood, which is never good. And then I saw the black blotches in my eyes. And when you see that at night, that’s not good either. I was struggling to stay conscious. Really I was trying harder to stay conscious than to aim my weapon because I knew if I passed out, I was going to die; they were just going to walk up and shoot me. So that’s what I was thinking. More than aiming my pistol I was thinking, ‘Just don’t pass out. If they’re going to kill you, they are going to have to put up a fight. They’re certainly not going to walk over here and kill me.’”

“We essentially just staved off the enemy until the rest of the team managed to get to us. Once they had established a base of fire and suppressed the enemy into a couple of different buildings, we were carried to the Black Hawks. Once we got accountability of everyone we were medivaced out.”

All three injured Americans survived, while a total of 11 enemy fighters were killed in the battle, according to Lindsay’s Silver Star citation.

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How do your actions that day show the best of the U.S. Army NCO corps?

The NCOs, they are really what make the Army go. In the NCO creed it says they are the backbone of the Army, and I think NCOs should always lead from the front. I think an NCO should always be in the thick of the fight, living out the warrior ethos. Being part of the Special Forces is unique because it’s really only NCOs. There are few officers, and there are no privates. So being a part of that, I saw the best of the NCO Corps every single day, and I made it a personal mission to live up to that standard that I saw.

What do you hope your Soldiers and junior NCOs can learn from your actions that day?

When I think back to it, I think the most important part of me surviving that was how hard I trained my body and spirit. A lot of people look at PT as something they do each morning as just part of the routine. But that’s not what it’s all about. It’s not about just being physically fit or just looking good at the beach. I look at it as preparing your mind and body for the worst possible circumstances. Once you face that adversity, once you get hurt, once you are under extreme duress and the adrenaline is pumping, it prepares you to drive on and succeed with the mission. If I didn’t train myself physically so hard, I don’t think I would have made it. But I was in what I consider to be tip-top physical condition, my mind was strong because I had put myself through countless severe training events, and I was strong, my constitution was strong, and I think that’s why I still here today.

After you landed, your Iraqi partners apparently didn’t help much. How did you deal with that?

Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay (top, right) poses with other Soldiers on a mountain in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay)
Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay (top, right) poses with other Soldiers on a mountain in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Master Sgt. Michael Lindsay)

I learned the hard way on several occasions that you can go and train these armies and all that other stuff and turn them into legitimate soldiers, but when the bullets start flying, it’s only the other Americans you can really rely on.

You were seriously injured, and then 11 months later you were back serving in Iraq. Tell me how, physically and mentally, you were able to do that.

Like I said, physically, I have trained my body to sustain itself, and I healed really fast and the doctors were like, hey, it’s definitely because you take such good care of yourself. But also, I have established a high expectation. I was back doing physical stuff probably a lot quicker than I should have been, but I had the expectation that I was going to heal, I was going to get back to where I was, and I was going to get back into the fight. I didn’t want to let my comrades down. To me, the worst possible scenario was the last time I was ever on the battlefield, I was getting carried off, wounded, unable to defend myself. That would have been the worst possible thing. So I made it my mission in life to get back to where I was to prepare for the next deployment. So I did that, and I’m happy about it.

Why have you continued to serve, after all you’ve been through?

I’ve always enjoyed being in the Army. Leaving the Army at a time of war, to me, is almost criminal. I just couldn’t have turned my back on the Army at any point during the past 10 years. I was in the same unit, 10th Special Forces Group, for the entire Global War on Terror. So I knew guys intimately, I’d worked with them for a long time. So, I could never leave the Army during that time. And the Army is important to me. It’s made me everything I am today. The lessons that I know as a man were taught to me in the Army. I know at some point my time in the Army is going to come to an end, but for me, it will be a sad day, because the Army is all I’ve really known. I’ve flourished in it, and it’s been good to me.

What makes a good NCO?

I think a good NCO is defined by a few things. It begins with technical and tactical knowledge. As an NCO, you have to know what you’re talking about. It’s also about the ability to lead, to mentor and to motivate. A good NCO in my opinion can do the job of his officer and enlisted superiors. And he can also do the job of his subordinates. The NCO has to be the master of all trades. Essentially, what goes into a good NCO is not only being able to do the job, but being able to teach others to do the job and motivate them to be the best they can be.

Are there any changes you’d like to see happen Armywide?

I think about this a lot because I’ve seen it come full circle. When I came in during the late ’90s, there was no war. There was the “garrison army.” And now it’s going back to that, with Iraq gone and Afghanistan going to be gone soon, we’re sinking back into that garrison mindset. I don’t really like it. What I’m hearing a lot from the upper echelons is trying to enforce new standards about trimming sidebars and trying to dictate how people dress on the weekends. What I want to hear is, how can we improve the force with, let’s say, better, more focused combat PT? How about instilling some legitimate performance standards, or instituting more realistic training? When I came in, all anyone cared about or talked about was boots and haircuts. When 9/11 happened, we were caught with our pants down because we were an undertrained, underequipped Army. And what I fear is that’s going to happen again and we are going to forget all the lessons we have learned.

What advice do you have for junior NCOs?

In the past 10 years, the Army changed, and one of the things that changed a lot was that the promotions were at such an accelerated rate that people were essentially outgrowing their abilities. Everybody wants to get promoted and expects to get promoted, but I would tell the junior NCO to be really careful what you ask for, because being a mid-level leader is the most fun in the Army, I think. You’re still in the fight, you have a chance to interact with Soldiers every single day, you have a chance to do a lot of things that you don’t get to do when you are a senior-level NCO and you are stuck at a staff job. My advice would be, stop worrying about getting promoted. Start worrying about being more proficient in your job. I think the Army would be a lot better off if people stopped worrying about getting promoted and just applied themselves in their day-to-day jobs.

What impact have you seen NCOs make on Soldiers?

An NCO can make or break or Soldier. A good NCO can make a good Soldier out of just about anyone. I’ve seen Soldiers that everybody was ready to give up on and throw to the wayside, but a good NCO took that Soldier under his wing, made that Soldier feel like a person, an individual, and slowly made a good Soldier out of him, chipped away all the bad pieces and made something out of him. I’ve seen great NCOs make great Soldiers out of ordinary Soldiers. So, when I talk to NCOs whom I respect and they reminisce about their younger days of being a Soldier, each one of them was affected by a great NCO, so I know for a fact that every great NCO was spawned from another great NCO.

 

By Example: Training and repetition pay off when enemy arrives

BY JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

This story is part of a periodic NCO Journal feature that takes a closer look at an Army award in an NCO’s career. This month we focus on the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor.

First Sgt. Justin Stewart is currently serving as first sergeant for Bravo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, in Hawaii. But in August 2005, he was a staff sergeant with Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment when his actions earned him the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device.

Stewart’s squadron was part of an effort to “clear, hold, rebuild” in the area of Tal Afar, Iraq. The effort was difficult in Tal Afar, Stewart said, because “there were a lot of foreign fighters — from Syria, Iran, other places were all in there. It was getting pretty ugly.” During a period of several weeks, the Army cleared neighboring areas, chasing the enemy into Tal Afar. Then the effort to clear Tal Afar itself began.

“We started dropping fliers all over the city to say that anybody out on the street was going to be considered a combative,” Stewart said. “So it really took a turn toward a more force-on-force linear conflict, as opposed to the counterinsurgency as we were normally treating it.”

First Sgt. Justin Stewart earned the Army Commendation Medal with "V" device for valor when he was a staff sergeant serving in Iraq in 2005.
First Sgt. Justin Stewart earned the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor when he was a staff sergeant serving in Iraq in 2005.

Stewart’s troop was clearing a block when a tank was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and was disabled. Though recovery efforts began immediately, the tall buildings and high roofs of Tal Afar allowed enemy fighters to swarm to advantageous positions. “[The tank crew] started getting attacked pretty heavily by small-arms fire,” Stewart said. “We were able to see RPG teams starting to maneuver to attack the recovery vehicle, as well as the disabled tank and crew as they were forced to get out and hook up tow winches.

“I’m a fire support specialist (13F) by trade, forward observer,” Stewart said. “I was in a Bradley, and we maneuvered into position to provide direct fire support with the 25-millimeter gun. I was able to engage and destroy two of the RPG teams that maneuvered onto the roofs overhead as they were trying to attack with direct fire. I started calling in indirect fire from the 120-millimeter mortars that were attached to the troop, so we were able to put down indirect fire to basically break up the merge coming down the street from the north. I was able to engage some of the rooftop RPG teams as they were trying to kill the tank and crew recovering it.

“We pulled them out and were able to recover the vehicle. No loss of life, so a successful day. We moved the tank out and continued our mission.”

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 How do your actions that day show the best of the U.S. Army NCO Corps?

Just in itself, watching out for Soldier welfare, making sure the mission gets accomplished. Our mission was taking the area and destroying the enemy. Really that’s the uppermost responsibilities in the noncommissioned officer’s mind: accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the Soldiers. So, I guess in that case, it was taking care of the Soldiers in the other vehicle, taking care of the Soldiers in my vehicle, making sure they were able to recover property and life and moving out. And then, we continued to accomplish the mission.

What do you hope your Soldiers and junior NCOs learn from your actions that day?

Repetition and training pay off. We spent so much time every day not letting complacency get to us out at our base. We made sure we were continuing to practice our fire support craft, even though at the time, that deployment, we hadn’t been doing much of it. It was where we stepped off the high-intensity conflict, started more stability support. So you didn’t get to do much indirect fire. But practicing and not letting that complacency kick in, making sure the craft was still honed, that’s what ensured that when the time came, I was still able to call for fire and put down effective rounds and, ultimately, kill bad guys.

Why did you decide to join the Army and why have you continued to serve?

I’ve always wanted to be a Soldier ever since I was a little kid building guns out of Legos. I don’t know if I should blame Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Commando movies, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. As I’ve stayed, my motivation has evolved. As I’ve matured as an adult, so have my goals and my reasons for continuing to serve. What may have started out as just an underlying, ‘I want to be a combat Soldier. It’s fun; it’s cool.’ … as I’ve been shaped, I’m starting to understand the Army Values, what it means to lead and train Soldiers. That’s what motivates me now — the ability to continue to stay in touch, continue to train, and watch these Soldiers develop into leaders themselves.

What role have NCOs played in your development?

From my very first chief, who I still stay in contact with … I can remember meeting him the day I hit the ground at my unit. Unfortunately he got wounded in Iraq after we had parted ways. I was a staff sergeant, and he went on to Korea, then back to Iraq, and ended up getting injured and medically discharged. But I still stay in touch with him. The training from day one from him about how to call for fire, how to properly employ the equipment, I used it that day out there and continue to use it and pass it down to my Soldiers.

What makes a good NCO?

Discipline, accountability and leading from the front.

What advice do you have for junior NCOs?

Never waste time. Leadership starts first thing in the morning. You have to take ownership and accountability of every aspect of training and every bit of time you get, from the moment you start doing PT, until the moment the day ends. Don’t waste time. Be accountable for your Soldiers, be accountable for their training.

 

 

 

 

Iron Division maintains the high standards set by Benjamin Franklin

Above: Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris on August 29, 1944. The division was the first American division to enter the capital after its liberation. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

From the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan, the NCOs of the 28th Infantry Division have been upholding the high standards of the time-honored corps for centuries. Yet being the U.S. military’s oldest division is only part of what makes the Iron Division one of the Army’s most unique.

A part of the Pennsylvania National Guard, the division has the only Stryker brigade combat team in the National Guard, and almost all the division’s battalions are headquartered in the state, a rarity among Guard divisions. Those facts are just small glimpses into the division’s history of leading by example, said its command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher S. Kepner.

“The vision for 28th Infantry Division Soldiers is that they are fit, resilient and well trained,” Kepner said. “When we look back, we think it is very important that we connect our history to that vision, because the 28th Infantry Division Soldiers have been doing some phenomenal things throughout history.”

 

From Ben Franklin to Pancho Villa

The division’s oldest unit, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment, was established by Benjamin Franklin in November 1747, nearly three decades before the nation declared independence. Frustrated by inaction by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, then dominated by pacifist Quakers, Franklin organized a group of volunteers to defend Philadelphia from French, Native American and privateer attacks. Today, the unit is part of the division’s 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and is among the very few to have been awarded campaign streamers for combat in the Revolutionary War through Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Sgt. Benjamin H. Crippen's defiance against Confederate troops during the Battle of Gettysburg is depicted on a monument at the battlefield.
Sgt. Benjamin H. Crippen’s defiance against Confederate troops during the Battle of Gettysburg is depicted on a monument at the battlefield in Pennsylvania.

During the Civil War, Pennsylvania volunteers fought in battles from Antietam, Md., to Vicksburg, Miss. But perhaps their fiercest fighting was within their own state at Gettysburg. There, on July 1, 1863, the 143rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, made up of Soldiers from Pennsylvania’s coal country, was the first infantry unit to arrive. When they were forced to flee from Confederate troops during the ensuing battle, their colorbearer, Sgt. Benjamin H. Crippen, was the last to retreat and was said to have continually stopped to shake his fist at the Confederates, daring them to take his flag. When he was shot and killed, the Confederate general reportedly said he was “quite sorry to have seen this gallant Yankee meet his doom.” Crippen’s flag is now displayed at the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

Following the Civil War, Pennsylvania militia units were officially organized in March 1879 as the Division of the National Guard of Pennsylvania with a keystone as its insignia. This makes it the oldest division-sized unit in any of the U.S. armed forces.

The division next saw federal service on the Mexican border in 1916 in response to Pancho Villa’s deadly raid on Columbus, N.M. Redesignated as the 7th Division, the Pennsylvania units were sent to El Paso, Texas; the Big Bend area of Texas; and Nogales, Ariz. But by March 1917, the division’s troops had all been sent back home.

Yet with World War I looming, it wouldn’t be for long. Indeed, some of the units returning from the border had their demobilization orders rescinded en route to Pennsylvania. By August, the division had assembled near Augusta, Ga., for training, and in November, the division had its “28th” numerical designation restored along with its red keystone shoulder patch.

 

‘Iron men’

The division was part of the French-British-American force that held back the formidable German onslaught along the Marne River at Château-Thierry, just 37 miles from Paris, in July 1918. Though most of the 28th’s troops took up positions in the second line of defense south of the river and east of the town, four companies were placed in between French units on the front line. Unfortunately, when the French troops abandoned their position, the Pennsylvanians were not informed. They held their ground until Germans surrounded them. Out of the more than 500 28th ID troops at those locations, just 150 survived.

In this artist's rendition, Soldiers from the 28th Division make their heroic stand against German troops outside the village of Château-Thierry, France, in July 1918. Their valor was commended by Gen. John J. Pershing, who called them "iron men."
In this artist’s rendition, Soldiers from the 28th Division make their heroic stand against German troops outside the village of Château-Thierry, France, in July 1918. Their valor was commended by Gen. John J. Pershing, who called them “iron men.” (Art by Don Troiani)

When told of the Pennsylvanians’ heroic stand, Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, remarked, “They are iron men,” a moniker that was quickly adopted by the entire division and that is emphasized over other nicknames to this day, Kepner said.

“Some Soldiers still say ‘Keystone Division,’ and it’s hard not to associate with that because that’s the insignia on our shoulders,” he said. “But calling ourselves the ‘Keystone Division’ doesn’t achieve the effect we want of connecting Soldiers with that fit, resilient and well-trained vision of what our Soldiers are and what our Soldiers need to be. ‘Iron Division’ intuitively does that.

“Gen. Pershing named us the ‘Iron Division’ after that battle, where there were small pockets of Iron Division Soldiers who were fighting, often in hand-to-hand combat, for days. You can’t do that if you aren’t fit, resilient and well trained.”

The division would see combat again during World War II when, after a period of training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., and in Louisiana and Florida, the division set sail for Wales, where they prepared to join in the amphibious invasion of Normandy. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, upon inspecting the division in April 1944, wrote his formal opinion that the Iron Division was “fit, efficient, serious and determined.”

However, the division did not participate in D-Day on June 6. Instead, the 28th ID crossed the English Channel six weeks later and slogged through northern France in the push to drive the Germans out. In the right place at the right time near Versailles in late August, the division was given the honor of being the first American division to parade in Paris after the capital’s liberation on August 29. An iconic photograph of the division’s troops marching down the Champs-Élysées with the Arc de Triomphe in the background even inspired a U.S. stamp issued that year.

 

Eschewing a ‘bloody’ nickname

But the battle for which the 28th ID is most known was yet to come. After moving through Belgium and Luxembourg, the division was ordered to attack the Germans in the Hürtgen Forest southeast of Aachen in November. A dense mass of fir trees and undergrowth atop a series of valleys and ridges, the forest was well-known to the German defenders, but would be a nightmare for the 28th ID’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Norman Cota.

A mannequin dressed as a World War II-era orderly sergeant sits in a mock barracks room at the 28th Infantry Division’s museum at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)
A mannequin dressed as a World War II-era orderly sergeant sits in a mock barracks room at the 28th Infantry Division’s museum at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

Because of the unfavorable terrain and because 28th ID was the only unit attacking on a 150-mile front, Cota was forced to split the division in three for separate attacks. But the German troops knew the area well and fought so tenaciously, the two sides would measure success on the battlefield in terms of inches won. The resulting stalemate and high cost in lives — nearly 6,200 Iron Division Soldiers were killed in the span of little more than a week — was attributed to Cota. But Kepner said such blame is unfair.

“Gen. Cota was directed with a course of action; he was never allowed to truly command the division,” Kepner said. “And when you talk about splitting your forces, that directive came from his higher [headquarters] — ‘You will attack this way.’ So it opens up a lot of debate about mission command.”

The battle also is where division earned its other oft-mentioned nickname. Upon seeing the red keystone patch, Germans said it resembled a “bloody bucket.” But that moniker is discouraged, Kepner said.

“We don’t like ‘Bloody Bucket’ at all,” he said. “It’s really, in my opinion, a misnomer. It does not do justice to those Soldiers in the Hürtgen Forest. Gen. Patton once said, ‘I am a Soldier. I fight where I’m told, and I win where I fight.’ Well, those Soldiers were damn sure trying to win where they fought after being told where to fight.”

 

Leading the way in Kosovo and Iraq

During the Korean War, the division was sent to Germany to augment American forces there. But the majority of the division would not serve in a federal capacity again until after the Dayton Accords, the 1995 peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. In 2002, the division took command of Task Force Eagle as part of the NATO-led Stabilization Force there.

The 28th Infantry Division’s patch is seen on these uniform jackets from the museum’s collection. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)
The 28th Infantry Division’s patch is seen on these uniform jackets from the museum’s collection. (Photo by Michael L. Lewis)

In 2003, the 28th ID became the first reserve component division to lead the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Kepner, who deployed there as an operations sergeant major, said the mission was well suited to a division of National Guard members.

“Being citizen-Soldiers, what we found when we got into Kosovo was that we brought a lot more diversity in the formation,” he said. “For example, we have police officers, we have electricians, we have all this diversity of these civilian vocations. In our infantry formation, we don’t necessarily have electrician [military occupational specialties], but because we had Soldiers who were electricians in their civilian jobs, we had Soldiers who would see a need and would have good ideas on how to fix some of these infrastructure things.

“I forget who said this quote — that no military service is prepared to do peace and stability operations, but of all the services, the Army is the best prepared,” Kepner said. “But I will tell you that the Guard is even better-prepared to do that piece of stability operations because of our community-based diversity.”

Kepner said that despite the trailblazing nature of the 28th ID’s deployment to Kosovo, making history was not on anybody’s mind.

“We all knew, being the first reserve component rotation in there, that we had to do well,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it was because it was for posterity’s sake or for historical perspective. We had to do well because we knew that everybody had their eye on us — could the National Guard do this? There hadn’t really been a National Guard deployment taking over something like this since maybe World War II. So we didn’t recognize our involvement as historical, but we did recognize it as setting a precedent for other Reserve and National Guard units.”

In 2009, the division set an additional precedent when it transitioned its 56th Brigade Combat Team into a Stryker brigade, the only one in the reserve component, and deployed it to Iraq. Based at Camp Taji, the brigade followed the division’s 2nd BCT, which deployed to Iraq in 2005. Kepner, who was the Stryker brigade’s command sergeant major in Iraq, said both deployments were a testament to the division’s agility and ability to do whatever it is called to do.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Frengel and other Soldiers and Stryker vehicles of A Troop, 2nd Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, move through the village of Sab al Bour near Taji, Iraq, on July 20, 2009. (Photo by Sgt. Doug Roles)
Staff Sgt. Andrew Frengel and other Soldiers and Stryker vehicles of A Troop, 2nd Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, move through the village of Sab al Bour near Taji, Iraq, on July 20, 2009. (Photo by Sgt. Doug Roles)

“It’s very important that our active-duty leaders understand that the 28th Infantry Division is ready for any mission,” he said. “If there’s one thing that I want them to take away, it’s that we are ready. Our history shows that we are ready, our support of the Global War on Terrorism shows that we are ready, and we are ready to do whatever mission we are given.”

Indeed, the division’s feats in combat are in addition to the work it does as part of the Pennsylvania National Guard — responding to national disasters, civil unrest and during other times at the request of the governor. For the division’s Soldiers today, it is important they realize they are part of the division’s next chapter in history, Kepner said.

“As the command team at the division level, we are being very aggressive in telling the story of the 28th Infantry Division,” he said. “We think it’s important that our Soldiers have something to associate themselves with, that the 28th Infantry Division is more than just a patch on their Soldier.

“It’s really about educating. It’s really about connecting the extraordinary feats of bravery by these Pennsylvanians in our history with what we’ve done in the past 10 years. I also tell the Soldiers that they are a part of writing the next chapter in the future. So to me, it’s about connecting the Soldier to the past, but also the recognition that he or she has the challenge of continuing that.”

 

“Roll On, 28th”

The 28th Infantry Division’s song was written in the fall of 1944 by Sgt. Emil Raab, a 28th ID bandsman who won a contest sponsored by the division’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Norman Cota, to develop the march and song.

Click to hear the 28th Infantry Division Band perform “Roll On, 28th” →

We’re the 28th men,
And we’re out to fight again
For the good old U.S.A.
We’re the guys who know
Where to strike the blow
And you’ll know just why
After we say:

Roll on, 28th
Roll on, set the pace,
Hold the banners high
And raise the cry,
“We’re off to Victory!”
Let the Keystone shine
Right down the line
For all the world to see.
When we meet the foe
We’ll let them know
We’re Iron Infantry,
So, Roll on, 28th, Roll on!

 

The valor of the 28th ID

Of the three 28th Infantry Division Soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their actions in World War I and World War II, two were noncommissioned officers:

Sgt. James I. Mestrovitch
Sgt. James I. Mestrovitch

Sgt. James I. Mestrovitch, an ethnic Serb from Montenegro who had emigrated to Pittsburgh, was fighting with C Company, 111th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division, in August 1918 in the hamlet of Fismette, France, when he saw his company commander lying 30 yards in front of the line after his company had withdrawn to a sheltered position behind a stone wall. According to his award citation, “Mestrovitch voluntarily left cover and crawled through heavy machine gun and shell fire to where the officer lay. He took the officer upon his back and crawled to a place of safety, where he administered first aid treatment, his exceptional heroism saving the officer’s life.” Mestrovitch’s award was posthumous, however, as he died of Spanish flu three months later, just a week before the armistice. He is buried in his homeland of Montenegro.

Tech. Sgt. Francis J. Clark was a squad leader with K Company, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, when two platoons attempted to ford the fog-shrouded Our River on Sept. 12, 1944, on the border with Germany near Kalborn, Luxembourg. When the fog lifted as the second platoon was crossing, German troops decimated the unit, killing both the platoon leader and platoon sergeant. Despite the withering hail of bullets, Clark crawled alone to the stricken troops, led the platoon to safety, then “unhesitatingly returned into the fire-swept area to rescue a wounded Soldier, carrying him to the American line while hostile gunners tried to cut him down,” his award citation reads. Later that day, Clark led his squad and the men of the other platoon in sorties against enemy positions. Their efforts wounded an undetermined number of the enemy, scattered the German patrols and, eventually, “forced the withdrawal of a full company of Germans heavily armed with automatic weapons,” his citation said.

Tech. Sgt. Francis J. Clark
Tech. Sgt. Francis J. Clark

Five days later near Sevenig, Germany, Clark advanced alone against an enemy machine gun, killed the gunner and forced the assistant to flee. When the Germans’ counterattack killed the leadership of two other platoons, Clark took over their command, moved among the men to give encouragement, then continued with even more acts of heroism: “Although wounded on the morning of Sept. 18, he refused to be evacuated and took up a position in a pillbox when night came. Emerging at daybreak, he killed a German soldier setting up a machine gun not more than 5 yards away. When he located another enemy gun, he moved up unobserved and killed two Germans with rifle fire. Later that day he voluntarily braved small-arms fire to take food and water to members of an isolated platoon.”

Clark received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman the following year. He died in 1981 and is buried in Salem, N.Y.