By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Seventeen months ago, soldiers in Col. David Sutherland and Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Felt’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team stepped onto the tarmac at Robert Gray Army Airfield and approached a plane that would carry them to the Middle East.
Half had made this journey before, and for the other half, it was the first time. One could watch the walk from the building to the airplane and pick out who were taking those steps for the first time. Not by the bare spot where a combat patch would eventually rest, but by the faces of the soldiers.
On Dec. 9, Sutherland and Felt led a flight of those soldiers back to Fort Hood.
This time, the soldiers walking down the steps of the airplane and onto the tarmac stepped a little more firmly. Not only had they spent more than a year in the tough province of Diyala, an area the size of Maryland north of Baghdad, they were just minutes away from reuniting with loved ones at the 1st Cavalry Division’s parade field.
The soldiers who had just finished their first combat deployment grew tremendously, Sutherland said as he rode in a van from the airfield to the parade field. The brigade, also known as the Greywolf Brigade, saw many successes in the troubled province, and that contributed to the soldiers’ confidence, Sutherland said.
The Greywolf Brigade was different from the rest of the 1st Cavalry’s brigades in that it was not with them in Baghdad.
It was a bit of an adjustment for members of the command team because they were used to the close contact and teamwork developed prior to the deployment.
“I missed seeing the big patch around,” Sutherland said of the 1st Cavalry’s signature patch.
Sutherland was a province-level commander in Diyala, leading Multinational Division-North with commanders from other units stationed there.
Sutherland said if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that there is only one of him. He had to trust and learn to delegate duties to the officers and noncommissioned officers around him.
Sutherland and Felt have led together about 30 months and knew how important it was to establish discipline, courage, confidence and camaraderie. They developed a strong team before and stayed strong, Sutherland said.
He added that the soldiers provided them with a great deal of faith.
Felt talked about the importance of the comrades to the left and right of each soldier. Those are the ones you share the experience with, he said, and they are who one depends on for support. That bond and closeness are hard to replicate.
Sutherland credited the noncommissioned officer corps for much of the success. The Greywolf is an “NCO-run brigade,” the colonel said.
“They are the keepers of the standards.”
He said he had a new appreciation, though he didn’t need one, for the noncommissioned officers of his brigade. That strong corps is something the Iraqi army lacks, Sutherland added.
The command team not only established a strong relationship with each other and the soldiers, but the Iraqi officials with whom they worked side by side. It’s tough leaving Iraq knowing that those leaders are still there, Sutherland said, because “we aren’t used to leaving people behind.”
Felt said he often asks himself what the provincial governor is doing right now. He is a brave man, Felt said, surviving eight attempts on his life.
“Now, we’re not responsible for him at all,” he said.
Being a colonel and the head of a brigade didn’t necessarily mean Sutherland was out of harm’s way. When asked about a Purple Heart he received, Sutherland replied, “Pshaw!”
He was at a fellowship festival with hundreds of local leaders during Ramadan when a suicide bomber hit the area.
Sutherland said the intended target was likely the governor. The bomb killed 24 of the colonel’s “very good friends,” and wounded his interpreter and a soldier in the security detail.
Several days later, Sutherland learned his hand was broken in the attack.
He had an agreement with his wife, Bonnie, that he would tell her everything that happened to him, whether it was a gunshot, a rash, a bomb. It’s something they decided before he left.
The brigade sustained the largest number of casualties of any other in the division. Sutherland said seeing the progress that he and his soldiers were making in the province is what helped keep them going. The progress was tangible, he said. It was people walking the streets, bustling markets and the re-establishment of electricity and other basic utilities.
Sutherland and Felt didn’t worry about themselves or the remaining soldiers as much as the families of the deceased soldiers.
“(We will) constantly and forever worry about the families,” he said.
Felt agreed, saying the most difficult thing was knowing a soldier died and his child had not yet come into the world. He, too, credited the success and progress for helping remind the soldiers of why they were in Iraq.
Sutherland said he couldn’t dwell on those killed in action because there were 4,000 other soldiers who needed him to worry about them. It isn’t that he was callous, he said, but he had to focus on those who needed his leadership then.
“We don’t forget,” Sutherland said. “We will never forget. We will never, ever forget.”
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7547