They packed their guns and gear in shipping bins while the sun beat down Friday on a staging area at the National Guard’s North Las Vegas Readiness Center.
It was a familiar scene for many in the 72nd Military Police Company, a well-traveled, well-trained Nevada Army Guard unit that has deployed four times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
First they went to guard the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., then twice to Iraq, not counting a 2005 assignment in between to maintain law and order in flood-ravaged New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
This time, after a deployment ceremony Monday, 30 of them will begin a nine-month journey that will take them to a New Jersey military base for training before tackling a crucial mission in Afghanistan: providing security and transportation for NATO leaders, dignitaries and high-ranking International Security Assistance Force officials.
Their destination will be Kabul’s metropolitan area.
Another platoon of 30 soldiers will relieve them in May to complete Nevada’s obligation for the 72nd MP Company. The second wave will arrive five months after U.S.-led combat operations are expected to cease, leaving only several thousand American troops to train Afghan national soldiers on holding their ground against the Taliban and other enemy combatants.
In the past, the 72nd MP ranks have included citizen-soldiers who have worked in civilian jobs as investigators, jail guards, deputy sheriffs and Highway Patrol troopers. This time, they’ll be led by a 36-year-old English teacher from Sunrise Mountain High School, 1st Lt. Jeffrey Hopkinson.
“Along with the drawdown effort, we’re still leaving a force there, and so that’s where our mission becomes more important because the fewer soldiers, the fewer troops we have over there, the easier it is for the enemy to attack, obviously,” he said. “So what we’ll do is protect them from these possible attacks.”
Hopkinson’s inspiration for joining the 72nd MPs was a book he read about a soldier who deployed to Iraq during a questionable time for the Army, the time when a handful of Army reservists from the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company carried out the much-publicized prisoner abuse scandal at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
The aftermath of the harassing, torturous acts carried out by the Maryland MPs at Abu Ghraib devastated the Nevada MPs because of the confusion with the companies’ similar names. Nevada’s 72nd MPs had gotten the prison on the outskirts of Baghdad in running order with dignity and were on their way home before the scandal took place.
Hopkinson said he felt compelled to become a National Guard officer because he realized after the Abu Ghraib ordeal “what the Army needs is leaders who can prevent things like Abu Ghraib from happening. It was embarrassing for our country.”
This will be Hopkinson’s first overseas deployment. With him will be a cadre of seasoned, noncommissioned officers that he described as “an amazing group of soldiers that I’m really proud to be working with.”
“Obviously, there’s always a lot of nervousness with a deployment, heading overseas to unfamiliar territory,” Hopkinson said. “I feel very comfortable with the soldiers I have. My noncommissioned officers have been more than professional. They’ve really taken a hold of our mission and have done a great job of training our younger soldiers.”
Spc. Jonnathan Cabrera, 23, of Las Vegas, said he’s the first from his family to serve in the military. He’s looking forward to the opportunity because he will gain experience to pursue his goal to become a police officer.
He understands that his wife, Monica, and his parents and siblings “might be a little scared,” but they are trying to stay strong for him.
“What they show me is they’re strong right now, but I know deep inside you know it’s hurting that I’m leaving,” he said.
Cabrera is not alone. After the 72nd MPs depart, about 100 Nevada Army Guard soldiers will be deployed abroad. A Nevada airlift detachment deployed to Afghanistan in June, and 50 Nevada National Guard soldiers mostly from Northern Nevada held a deployment ceremony Thursday in Reno. They are destined for Egypt to be part of a peacekeeping coalition along the border with Israel.
In addition, 21 Army Reserve soldiers from the Las Vegas-based 948th Movement Control Team left in August for a monthlong training stint at Fort Hood, Texas, before they go to Afghanistan to coordinate ground and air supply operations during the drawdown.
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.