Al Asad Air Base, Iraq –
In the very early morning hours of June 5, 2021, Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery did what they’d done for several months – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – they manned their Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar guns.
The Soldiers, deployed to Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, came from small towns, mostly in northwest and north central Iowa. Members of the Iowa National Guard, and mostly field artillerymen and maintainers, they found themselves deployed to the Middle East to do a completely foreign mission: air defense.
“It’s in the name of C-RAM: Counter-rocket, artillery, mortar,” said Spc. Corbin Doll, of Milford, Iowa, “so that’s what I was expecting.”
Doll, a forward observer who had previously been trained to direct mortar fire but was now tasked with shooting mortars out of the sky, was manning his C-RAM, call sign Athena, that morning in early June when he heard another gun fire and saw a flash of light.
It wasn’t rockets or mortars threatening Al Asad, Doll would quickly learn, but two unmanned aerial vehicles. Another C-RAM had engaged the first threat, and as Doll readied his gun for what was next, he heard the call come over the radio, “Prepare to engage.”
Doll and fellow C-RAM operator Spc. Kristian Kelly, of Storm Lake, Iowa, had just been part of an historic event. For the first time ever, outside of a training scenario, a C-RAM had shot down a drone. Then it did it again.
Kelly was manning the first gun that fired – Hades.
“You hear about all the good that the C-RAM can do,” Kelly said, “[this] definitely validated the amount of time we’ve spent out here.”
Prior to deploying to Iraq, the 194th Field Artillery spent 10 weeks at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, learning how to man the C-RAM. During that time, the enemy threat of UAVs was just emerging. Kelly’s unit was warned about the possibility of encountering a drone, but the overall impression he got was that it was not likely.
“[They said,] if there is a drone, this is what you should do, this is what would probably happen,” Kelly said, “but it won’t happen.”
Regardless, the unit did a live fire exercise at Sill’s two-way range where they engaged a small drone, and another exercise at Al Asad in late February. Around that time, the base in western Iraq began experiencing increased rocket attacks – a familiar enemy for the C-RAM crew.
“That’s the most straight forward threat that we could have expected,” Doll said, “but obviously they have quite a few more sophisticated approaches of attack.”
Staff Sgt. Brandon Burk, a public affairs Soldier from Johnston, Iowa, joined the 194th Field Artillery’s mission to help fill slots for noncommissioned officers on the large mobilization. Burk spent many months as a sergeant of the guard, managing all the guns and Soldiers on a shift. Later, as the unit was spread thin by manning requirements, Burk joined Doll at the gun named Athena.
“We did the math; you know if you’re out here for 12 hours every day, it’s something like over 2500 hours over the course of 9 months,” Burk said, “to be sitting on the gun when it actually fires, it’s a validation of that – of that work, of that time.”
To put it plainly, Kelly described himself as the gun’s babysitter.
“We make sure it’s fed, make sure it’s ready to go,” Kelly said.
Spending 50% of their week, every single week, at their gun sites in two-man teams, the Soldiers worked to make their small, secured compounds feel like home.
“I don’t know if home is the right word, it’s more like a college apartment,” Kelly said. “It is our space.”
The 194th Field Artillery built gyms at each site, pouring and carefully measuring concrete into 45-pound plates, creating racks and benches from materials pulled out of trash piles. Their guard shacks from which they monitored their secured gates were filled with things to pass the time – from knitting yarn to crossword puzzles.
“I’ve really tried to focus on doing things to keep my mind working,” Kelly said.
The Soldiers found ways to stay awake and fill long shifts while remaining vigilant in the event an active threat came to Al Asad. Over the course of their deployment, approximately 40 such threats took place, a significant increase in enemy activity from previous months.
“When something comes in, we want to be able to shoot it down and protect the base,” Burk said.
And the 194th Field Artillery did, time and again, beginning in early March 2021. By May, the base experienced its first suicide drone, equipped to fly into a target and explode on impact. This was not the small quadcopter drone the 194th Field Artillery had trained for, but a larger, fixed-wing model. At no point in history had the C-RAM engaged a threat like this. A month later, in early June, that changed.
“There was question whether or not we had the capability to do that,” Burk said, “and clearly we do.”
Less than 60 days after making C-RAM history, the 194th Field Artillery Battalion returned home, hanging up their air defense hats – probably for good. Many of the Soldiers will return to the familiarity of firing artillery rather than defending against it. Some Soldiers, like Burk and Kelly, will return to non-combat roles in non-combat units.
Col. Mark Coble, Al Asad base commander and a fellow member of the Iowa National Guard from the 734th Regional Support Group, said atypical missions are pretty typical for the National Guard.
“There are times when a mission that an organization is designed to accomplish does not specifically, completely fit the requirements within the theater,” Coble said.
In this case, there was no place for a traditional field artillery mission, but instead a requirement for air defense to protect U.S. and Coalition forces as they advise and assist Iraq in the fight against Daesh.
Coble said the experience of being a member of the National Guard, and the civilian-acquired skills these Soldiers bring with them, help them remain flexible to complete non-standard missions.
While Coble never would have predicted the historical significance of the air defense mission for the 194th Field Artillery, he said he couldn’t be prouder to serve alongside not just fellow members of the National Guard, but fellow Iowans as well.
“The big three major subordinate commands for the state were all represented in one location,” Coble said, referring to his own 734th Regional Support Group, the field artillery’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and an aviation battalion currently flying missions in Iraq from Iowa’s 67th Troop Command. “It has been a joy being able to serve beside other Iowa Guardsmen within the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.”