Handing back the keys to IraqAbout 2,000 North Dakota National Guard soldiers played a role in the war in Iraq. But few can say they literally handed the keys to the country back to the Iraqi people.
By: By Mike Nowatzki, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — About 2,000 North Dakota National Guard soldiers played a role in the war in Iraq.
But few can say they literally handed the keys to the country back to the Iraqi people.
Staff Sgt. Teresa Pavljuk, the last North Dakota Guard member to leave Iraq, can make that claim.
The 25-year-old University of North Dakota graduate counts it among her proudest accomplishments during her nearly nine months in Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn.
Just as meaningful, said Pavljuk, a member of the Air Guard’s Fargo-based 119th Wing, is the time she spent as an air transportation specialist, helping thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq board airplanes for the trip home.
“It’ll be very gratifying, and a sense of closure as well, to be as close as possible the last person out on that plane,” she said in a Skype interview last week — before she knew she’d be landing in Fargo today.
Pavljuk is expected to arrive at 12:51 p.m. at Hector International Airport.
As the last American troops in Iraq head home for Christmas, Pavljuk and other North Dakota Guard members reflect on their time in Iraq and the war that changed their lives.
Staying to the end
Pavljuk should have been home weeks ago, but she requested and received an extension of her six-month tour of duty — one of her several acts of volunteerism while in Iraq that earned her the nickname “volunteer queen.”
“It’s really important to me to stay with it” until the end, she said.
As an air transportation specialist — a new career field for the 119th Wing’s Logistics Readiness Squadron — Pavljuk loaded cargo onto planes and also manned the ticket counter, often checking dozens of troops onto planes during her 12-hour shift.
Some soldiers showed up several hours early for their flights; she helped with baggage and just about anything else to shorten their wait.
She would high-five them as they took their first steps onto the ramps of a C-130 or C-17 with smiles on their faces.
“That’s the really great thing about my job, too, is that people are happy to see me,” Pavljuk said. “I’m the last person that they get to see (in Iraq), and it’s a good reason. They get to go home.”
Iraq in ‘a
Pavljuk wasn’t the only North Dakota Guard member to play a role in air operations during the war.
Capt. Douglas Larsen of Bismarck spent 10 months in Iraq as commander of Company C of the 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Assault Regiment, returning in October 2010.
The company’s pilots flew Black Hawk helicopters to ferry high-profile passengers ranging from the deputy secretary of state to entertainers such as the Pussycat Dolls.
Company C also served as a quick reactionary force from Basra and took part in 10 air assault missions, working alongside Iraqi soldiers, Larsen said.
Cultural differences made it hard to teach the Iraqis, Larsen said, but he believes they were well-trained. He said that while the Iraqis seemed grateful for U.S. help, he also sensed they were excited about the exit of American forces some viewed as occupiers.
“I think they’re in a good position,” he said. “What they choose to do with it, I guess, is up to them.”
Company C’s 45 soldiers in Iraq accumulated about 5,000 hours of flight time in 10 months — experience that normally would take five years to acquire stateside, Larsen said. That know-how will pay dividends for North Dakota when they’re called upon to assist in floods and other missions, he said.
In the meantime, Larsen is enjoying being home with his wife and two children, including a 1-month-old son born on Veterans Day.
The 17-year Guard veteran said the thing he’ll remember most from Iraq is the closeness he developed with fellow soldiers.
“It was tough for me to understand before I went,” he said. “It’s an emotional feeling. It’s a level of care and trust and love that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced outside of that situation.”
‘A necessary step’
Sgt. 1st Class Michael W. Kraft served two separate tours in Iraq, at the war’s beginning and near its end.
As a member of the Bismarck-based 957th Multi-Role Bridge Company, the platoon sergeant was deployed in April 2003, the month after the war began.
“My distinct memory was sitting in Kuwait when we landed, and watching about every 20 seconds a plane landing or taking off. There was an incredible amount of troops inbound,” he said.
Once in Iraq, the bridge company encountered hostile conditions as it often operated “outside the wire,” Kraft said. Of the eight North Dakota Guardsmen killed in Iraq, three were from the 957th.
When Kraft returned for his second tour in January 2010 with the Grand Forks-based 1-188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, he was the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of an eight-man group.
They were the first North Dakota Guard soldiers to employ the Sentinel Radar system in a combat zone, alerting short-range air defenses to hostile targets.
The eight soldiers were spread out 80 miles apart, a big departure from Kraft’s first tour with the 957th.
“We weren’t attached to anybody. We were on our own,” he said.
Kraft, 44, said it was hard to be away — and even harder for his wife and five children in Devils Lake. He said the drawdown is positive because it reunites soldiers with their families.
The full-time Guardsman said he believes historians will view the war in Iraq “as a necessary step in preventing terrorism.”
“As far as maintaining a presence (in Iraq), my belief is that we’re probably still needed,” he said. “But in a way, I think the Iraqis have learned from us training their people to take care of their own country.
“They’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.
Keys handed over
For Pavljuk, a tour of Saddam Hussein’s palaces during her first week in Iraq started her down the path to her most memorable work in Iraq.
She volunteered to help with the tours and ended up becoming the lead guide for the palaces, giving 13 tours to more than 265 military and civilians on her one day off per week.
Pavljuk also donated her time to the Good Neighbor Program, collecting and distributing clothes to the children and families of Iraqi special forces living under U.S. protection near Sather Air Base in Baghdad. Afterward, she’d play soccer and let Iraqi children braid her long hair “or put in a million knots. It was awesome,” she said.
When the military began drawdown preparations, the palace tours ended. Pavljuk volunteered to clean up the palaces, specifically Victory Over America, an unfinished palace bombed for obvious symbolic reasons during the initial U.S. attacks.
Working in 120-degree temperatures, Pavljuk and about 40 volunteers from Sather Air Base in Baghdad hauled four truckloads of garbage and debris out of the massive palace and tidied up more than a dozen smaller buildings at Camp Slayer.
“And a lot of the buildings had military locks on the doors because we once occupied them,” she said. “So we actually took off the door locks and put up new locks on those front doors to those buildings for security, and we handed over those keys to the Iraqis.
“So, that to me is just very special, very significant, just true to the meaning of Operation New Dawn,” she said.
Mike Nowatzki is a reporter
at The Forum of Fargo-
Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.