There was a time when a soldier with the Louisiana National Guard might be expected to sacrifice a weekend a month and two weeks a year for training, with an occasional stint for stateside disaster response.
“Now, you better have your boots ready,” said Staff Sgt. Gregory Doucet, a Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s deputy who has deployed twice to Iraq in the past decade with the Guard’s Lafayette-based 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
The 256th, which accounts for more than a quarter of the Louisiana National Guard’s total force of 11,000, is a poster child for how dramatically the role of the citizen soldier has changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, the 256th — created in the 1960s from other units — had never deployed as a full brigade overseas.
Since Sept. 11, the 256th has twice been to Iraq, sending more than 3,000 soldiers in 2004 and again in 2010.
For a group sometimes dubbed “weekend warriors,” the Guardsmen have been very much a real fighting force.
The 256th deployed in 2004 as a self-contained mechanized brigade — Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, artillery — and were responsible for areas in and around Baghdad.
Doucet and others likened the scene to the “wild West.”
Elements of the 256th saw combat, cleared transportation routes of improvised explosive devices, trained Iraqi forces and provided security for the country’s first elections, said retired Maj. Gen. John Basilica Jr., who commanded the brigade from 1999 through 2006.
“We just did it all,” Basilica said. “We had just begun training the Iraqi units, so they did not have the security to protect themselves.”
The 256th returned to Iraq in 2010 as a light infantry brigade, still an armed, self-contained force but minus the tanks and Bradleys and more focused on security and rebuilding throughout the country.
Soldiers who deployed both times with the 256th said the stabilization of the country was obvious on the second trip.
“The first deployment was nerve-wracking,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Prince, who signed on with the 256th in 1996 after eight years in the Army.
He recalled working on rebuilding schools during his first deployment in 2004, “trying to do goodwill projects and at the same time, we were getting shot at.”
Prince said that during the first deployment he “could count on one hand how many times I took my body armor off.”
“This time, I could count how many times I put it on,” he said of his second deployment in 2010.
While the Guard’s work in Iraq has received much attention in recent years, there is probably less of a public awareness of how the brigade’s mission at home expanded in the tense years after Sept. 11, 2001.
The 256th and other Guard units provided security at airports, power plants, major sporting events and anything else feared to be a possible terrorist target, said 256th Commander Col. Jacques Thibodeaux.
“For the first three years after Sept. 11, we provided infrastructure security every time the threat level went up,” he said.
The Guard’s more active post-Sept. 11 role came in addition to stateside disaster response, which included recovery for hurricanes Katrina and Rita and post-Katrina security in New Orleans immediately after the 256th returned from its first deployment in summer 2005.
“When I first joined the Guard, we weren’t doing half the things we do now,” Prince said. “We are a one-stop shop. We can do it all. We assist communities, law enforcement, respond to disasters, civil unrest. We are a deployable fighting force. You name it and we get called for it.”
The seeds for the changing role of the 256th as an overseas force were planted in the 1990s, when the brigade was selected as one of National Guard’s 15 “enhanced brigades” nationwide, said Basilica, who commanded the 256th through the first Iraq deployment.
The enhanced designation meant the brigade would receive better training and equipment to serve as a self-contained combat unit, part of a post-Cold War shift that has the U.S. depending more heavily on citizen soldiers and less on a declining active-duty force, Basilica said.
“The country is now relying on the reserve component to a much larger degree,” Basilica said. “The idea that we would use you (Guardsmen) as the last resort, that is gone. Nine-eleven was the driving event that fundamentally changed the way we use our reserve system.”
He said the 256th began a period of intense training in 1999 that was capped off with on-the-ground desert combat preparation in the summer of 2001 at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California.
“We came back in August 2001, and 30 days later, 9/11 took place,” Basilica said.
Basilica said that when military operations were launched in the wake of terrorist attacks, deployment seemed certain for the newly trained and combat-ready 256th.
“It wasn’t a matter of if. It was a matter of when,” he said.
The more active role of the 256th in the years since Sept. 11 has changed the reality for those who sign up for the standard six-year hitch with the Guard.
“Now they realize, if I join the Guard, chances are before my six years is up, I’m going to go somewhere,” said 256th Staff Sgt. Todd Beaubouef.
And they may not come home.
On Dec. 23, 2004, the Louisiana National Guard lost its first soldier in Iraq.
First Lt. Christopher Barnett, a 32-year-old from Denham Springs, was killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling the outskirts of Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 156th Armor Regiment of the 256th.
He was among 26 Louisiana National Guard soldiers who died from bombs or other combat-related injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the bulk of those deaths were in the 256th, said Staff Sgt. Denis Ricou, a Guard spokesman.
When counting deaths from both combat and natural causes, the 256th lost 32 soldiers during the first Iraq deployment and six during the second, Thibodeaux said.
Beaubouef, who knew Barnett through law enforcement work back home, said the death of his friend prompted him to join the 256th after having left active duty with the Army 14 years earlier.
“I didn’t do it until I got word that Chris was killed,” Beaubouef said. “I guess I kind of felt that I should be over there doing my part.”
Basilica said similar patriotic feelings galvanized the 256th in the years after Sept. 11.
He recalled a ceremony in Iraq during the brigade’s first deployment when 500 soldiers with the 256th re-enlisted at once.
“When our country was attacked, there was no doubt in my mind that people were going to stay,” Basilica said. “Soldiers like to be part of something good.”
Thibodeaux, a longtime Guardsmen who took over as commander of the 256th earlier this year, said the “willingness of people to serve is better than ever.”
He said some soldiers have signed up to go overseas a second or third time after returning from a deployment with their regular units.
“What strikes me as remarkable is that soldiers will volunteer with other units repeatedly,” Thibodeaux said. “We have some soldiers who have deployed to Iraq two and three times and Afghanistan two or three times.”
Thibodeaux said he also is impressed by how many new soldiers keep enlisting with the full knowledge they might find themselves in harm’s way overseas.
Specialist Rebecca Young’s first tour to Iraq came last year.
The 26-year-old college graduate said she joined the Guard two years ago to fulfill her passion for military service and went to Iraq last year with the second deployment of the 256th.
On Sept. 11, 2001, she was an Erath High School junior, sitting in English class taking the “hardest exam” of her life on the classic novel “Lord of the Flies.”
“I still remember what desk I was sitting in,” she said.
After the exam, students watched news reports of the terrorist strikes.
“It was one of those surreal moments that you didn’t think that it was true. You didn’t want it to be true, obviously,” Young said.
The weight of what had unfolded on Sept. 11 surfaced again eight years later when she took her oath as a soldier.
“When I joined, that was one of the moments that I had thought about when I was swearing in,” Young said. “I’m swearing in because if that ever happens again, I want to be part of it. Hopefully, it never will.”
Advocate staff writer Jason Brown contributed to this story.