A giant sandbox. That's where Spec. Kelley Sabata is right now, at least according to her two-year-old daughter Shea. Sabata is in Iraq, deployed with the Nebraska Army National Guard's 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade. Shea's in Lincoln, where she's been living with Kelley's parents since the unit left last summer.
"She says she wants us to come home," Sabata says. "Sometimes she thinks that I can just stop on by, and I don't even think she understands that it's across the world where I'm at but she knows that mom's at work and she'll be home soon."
Home by mid-June, according to plans. The 67th is finishing 10 months of duty in Iraq. The Brigade of 14 hundred soldiers includes men and women from Utah, Connecticut and Montana, in addition to almost 400 Nebraskans. Soldiers are based at about 40 locations throughout the country, where their main mission is serving as eyes and ears for other units, using technology and human intelligence to watch the enemy.
SLIDESHOW: Kelley Sabata's deployment, as seen through her Facebook photos (posted here with her permission)
For Sabata, a 24-year-old signal intelligence analyst from Lincoln, it's been a seven-day-a-week desk job in an office building at Camp Adder in southern Iraq. "Because I work the swing shift, so I try and sleep during the day to avoid the hot weather," she says. "Keeping on the routine, work, work out and eat and sleep."
The routine includes communication with loved ones. Like her boyfriend, who's also part of the Brigade but stationed 250 miles away. And her parents and daughter back in Lincoln. "Thank God for Skype so we can talk everyday and get to see each other," Sabata says.
Two or three times a week Skype lets Capt. Clint Kinman see his wife and two children in Omaha. The kids are one- and two-years-old. "Try to get the kids, when they're not on their nap time, on the video," Kinman says. "Obviously with their attention span they last about five minutes."
Kinman, a 38-year-old who has been in the Guard for almost 19 years, runs the Brigade's information technology section, which he says has been a challenge. "Everyday we're working, troubleshooting. I've got a staff of about 25 that work with me. We troubleshoot anywhere from telephone issues to computer issues on a daily basis."
Like many Nebraska soldiers in the Brigade, Kinman's deployed before, five years ago to Afghanistan. With young children, he says it's been harder this time. But still worth it. "I look back on my last deployment and I see how far Afghanistan has come, and I'm sure we'll look back on Iraq in the future and see how much a major part we played in of them stabilizing their infrastructure, their community and their government as a whole," Kinman says.
Lt. Col. Brett Andersen, commander of the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, agrees. "We're not here to make Iraq America. We're here to give them a choice," says Andersen, a 43-year-old from Lincoln. "And I think by the time we leave, the choice is gonna be theirs in what they want to do and how they want to operate. And to know that we were part of that effort. That all these folks at the lowest level contribute to doing that, that's the thing I'm most proud of."
Andersen assumed command last month, after Col. Phillip Stemple was removed from leadership of the Brigade and sent home. A U.S. Army spokesperson told Stars and Stripes newspaper that leaders had lost confidence in Stemple's ability to command and that an investigation uncovered a negative command climate within the Brigade. Andersen called it a change for the better.
"It worked out a little better for us. We took a dip up, not a dip down," says Andersen, who had previously been the unit's executive officer. "Didn't miss a beat. Our soldiers are a professional group, and mission accomplishment was always at the forefront."
Andersen says there have been other challenges. Like an accelerated schedule that saw soldiers doing what might normally be five years of preparation, in just 18 months. And the impact of having a unit with many soldiers who have been deployed multiple times. "You've got a few folks who are tired. Not gonna lie to you," Andersen says. "You can only work constantly for so long before you say you have to take a break."
SLIDESHOW: Life at Camp Adder (courtesy NE Army National Guard)
The last few weeks have been among the busiest, as the Brigade works to hand-off its mission to an Indiana-based replacement unit. "Going over all the requirements, from daily reporting to battle drills, the handing off at the team level, sources. Human sources, all those things," Andersen says.
They've also been doing "left seat-right seat rides" with the new soldiers. "They spend the first five days as relief in place, in the right seat of the vehicle for driving everywhere," Andersen says. "The last five days they're driving, and we ride along as passengers."
All this work leads up to the transfer of authority, which is scheduled for May 31. Not long after that the Nebraska soldiers come home. Andersen, a full-time National Guard soldier, says he hopes to establish a sense of normalcy he hasn't had in a couple years. And spend time with his three children and girlfriend. "Hug those four people. And then, get a good beer," he says.
Capt. Clint Kinman will return to his family and job as an Omaha firefighter, but with a little time off first. "We have a couple of family vacations planned. Just hang out with the family and relax," he says.
Spec. Kelley Sabata will get home in time for her daughter's third birthday, and a party they've been planning from afar for several months. She returns to a job as a nursing assistant at Bryan-LGH Medical Center, and plans to attend classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall. Sabata also plans on staying in the Guard, saying it's helped her life and her daughter's life, especially financially. She says the deployment has helped her grow as a person, but is excited to get back. "I am very ready to come home," she says.
A sentiment likely shared by nearly 400 other Nebraska soldiers.
See how soldiers trained for this deployment in the NET News documentary "Before the Battle"