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Guardsmen have mixed reactions to changes

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Some with 1140th will have to learn new jobs as result of reorganizations.

Many area National Guardsmen trained to blow up bridges and locate land mines must learn to drive dump trucks, deliver supplies and cook meals for fellow soldiers to remain in the guard.

Under a plan set to take effect next month, the 1140th Engineer Battalion, with companies in Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Sikeston, will lose companies from the region. Instead, it will be part of an engineer brigade with units from as far away as Kansas City.

The engineering unit in Jackson will transform into a detachment of the 735th Force Provider Company, whose members will cook and install plumbing for other units. And the company based in Sikeston will become a detachment of the 1221st Transport Company, charged with moving supplies and troops into deployment areas.

The changes are unsettling for some guardsmen, said Capt. Kevin Compas, commander of the 1140th's B Company. "Some are a little apprehensive," Compas said. "For some it is a welcome sight."

Guardsmen don't just switch from a job specialty of blowing up bridges one day to driving a truck the next, said Lt. Col. Robert Jones, commander of the 1140th. Those who must make the switch will be receiving training to qualify for their new specialty, he said.

And some soldiers won't want to change, Jones said. "Any soldier who is an engineer as their occupational specialty, we will do everything we can to keep them an engineer."

But there won't be enough slots for everybody, he said.

Statewide, there will about 500 fewer positions statewide. Missouri currently employs 10,500 guardsmen. In Cape Girardeau, the headquarters detachment will lose five positions.

In Sikeston, there will be 27 fewer jobs while Perryville will see an increase of five positions.

Men and women in the National Guard spend one weekend each month on active duty and two weeks each year training. And members of the 1140th Engineer Battalion spent a year in Iraq that ended in February. And on Friday, another 80 members left to join a Kansas City engineering battalion for training to prepare for deployment in Iraq.

The transformation is part of a nationwide adjustment in the way National Guard units are organized, Jones said. "This is nothing we just thought of," he said. "This is all from the Department of Defense and it just drives from there."

The new mix of units in Southeast Missouri is a better fit for recruiting and for preparing people for civilian jobs, Master Sgt. Chad Craft said. Craft is the non-commissioned officer in charge of guard recruiting for a region south of St. Louis from West Plains to the Mississippi River.

"These jobs are more relevant to the economy of the area," Craft said. "These are truck drivers, dump truck drivers, military police. The backbone of the area is blue collar work and this is a good asset to recruiting."

And despite troubles elsewhere in the country filling recruiting goals, Craft said, Southeast Missouri is doing very well. Over the past two months, 44 men and women have signed up compared to goal of 28, he said.

Capt. Scott Ratcliff, commander of Company C of the 1140th, said he believes the changes are good for the guard. The military needs smaller, more mobile forces, he said. The current guard was designed for an era of less technologically advanced weaponry and to fight the Soviet Union, a threat that hasn't existed for 15 years.

The Department of Defense "wants to create units that are kind of a plug-and-play," able to support active duty units without calling out an entire battalion or brigade, he said.

"The biggest thing is taking care of the soldiers and making sure they have a home," Ratcliff said.

Soldiers in the Sikeston area "are taking it pretty much in stride," Ratcliff said. "At first they were kind of disappointed. You learn to love the unit you have been with for years, then you learn the unit is going to go away."

The first job in the transformation will be evaluating each soldier to see if they fit a specialty in their new units, Ratcliff said. If they don't fit, they will be sent away to school for training.

Instead of active-duty training for two weeks, many will go to school. Adding a new specialty to their existing skills will make them more flexible, Craft said. If a soldier decides to move, he said, the extra skills will give them options for joining new units.

"All in all, it is a good thing," Ratcliff said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126


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