Wisconsin Rapids’ Mark E. Anderson Reflects on Iraq

Maj. Gen. Mark Anderson, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, addresses Soldiers during a welcome-home ceremony Jan. 25, 2018, for approximately 75 Wisconsin members of the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation returning to Madison, Wis., after a nine-month Middle East deployment. The unit provided UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter airlift assets and maintenance support personnel, flew 3,700 mission hours, conducted 69 medical evacuations, and transported more than 5,900 troops as well as approximately 200,000 pounds of cargo. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Sgt. Katie Eggers. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 4268876. Public domain.

In his December 7, 2015, oral history interview, Major General Mark E. Anderson paints a profound and sometimes poignant picture of his military service from 1983 to 2022 in the United States Army.

Anderson, a native of Wisconsin Rapids, hits his stride in his interview with Helen Gibb by relating his time with the 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, 32nd Separate Infantry Brigade, Wisconsin Army National Guard. Anderson graduated in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a bachelor's degree in Water Resources. While with the 120th, he served at various units in Waupaca, Stevens Point, and Wisconsin Rapids.

A soldier with prior enlisted service, Anderson candidly explains his mentorship by non-commissioned officers, steady gains in responsibility, and career decision points, as he later rose in commissioned officer ranks. His reflections include firsthand stories about duty as a casualty notification officer in central Wisconsin during the Iraq War. Anderson draws a moving picture of the sacrifices that Wisconsin families make.

Following his service in Iraq, he emphasizes and feels the pain of those Iraqi families who lost sons, husbands, and brothers killed in action while allied with the United States. Later, as a result of combat-induced stress, Anderson has to turn over the driving of the family car to his wife because he keeps driving people off the road on the return trip from the Minneapolis Airport while on mid-tour R&R.

Anderson did not deploy during the Persian Gulf War for reasons revealed in the interview, and as a result, he had a strong need to participate in the next war. When September 11, 2001, attacks happened, Anderson knew this was his opportunity to serve on a combat deployment, and he deployed to Iraq in July 2005. His Iraq combat service tempers his initial need to be in a theatre under fire, and Anderson's opinion changed. He observed green soldiers wanting to earn a medal in combat, whereas the combat veterans desired survival.

Anderson shares his thoughts on the Iraq War, its results, and the sacrifices made by the coalition. Finally, Anderson reflects on the deep and almost immediate connection he feels with other veterans when he meets them, regardless of rank or war fought.

For a complete and up-close story of a veteran from Wisconsin Rapids, go here:
https://wisvetsmuseum.com/ohms-viewer/render.php?cachefile=OH_02042.xml

Or listen to the short audio clips below.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum also has objects from Anderson's military service that can be researched here:
https://wisvetsmuseum.catalogaccess.com/people/489

"Of course, any time we convoyed, I mean, speed was our friend, and having nobody else on the road. So, we would be doing between sixty to ninety-five kilometers per hour, so forty-five to sixty, sixty-five. And we would be right down the center of the road. And if anybody was coming at us, we'd-- well, we'd give them a shot across the bow before we'd shoot-- had to do that a couple times. If we came up on vehicles, they usually knew to move over. If they didn't, we moved them-- just push them off. And so it-- and I tell that only because, fast-forwarding a little bit to when I-- I come home on leave, and I land in Minneapolis. And so the wife and kids are there to greet me. Barb asks-- my wife-- asks if I want to drive. I said, "Yeah! I'd love-- " I haven't-- I really haven't been driving up to this point as the colonel. So I get-- I start driving. We're heading back to Wisconsin, and I don't think we're driving more than ten minutes, and Barb says, "Pull over." I was forcing cars off the road-- didn't even know it. I'd come up next to them, and I'd start moving over, and people were not very happy with me. But I was totally oblivious to what they were doing, because I was focused on the threats ahead of me, everything perceived as a threat. Going under underpasses, we would do what we called "crazy Ivans," where you're in one lane and while you're under the bridge, you switch, because of people throwing Molotov cocktails on top of your Humvees, or rocks. And so it only took me doing that a couple times, and Barb told me to pull over."

"Going back about thirty days-- we had come back from a mission outside, and we had come upon a young-- a little boy. The family was scrounging in one of the local dumps. And the father brought the boy out to us by the con-- by the road ed-- road's edge, so we stopped. And the boy had fallen and had gashed open his-- back of his thigh-- probably had a three- to four-inch gash, and of course no shoes, nothing like that. And so we fixed him up. Got him some a-- gave him some antibiotics, and the-- our doc, through the interpreter, explained to the family what to do. And it occurred to us at the time, "God, these kids don't have shoes. It'd be kind of cool if we could get shoes for them." I emailed back home to my family about the experience and wanting to do something with shoes or the like. And so my family started a shoe campaign, along with coworkers from the company that I used to work-- or that I worked with at the time. And they ultimately shipped to us fifty boxes of shoes-- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes. And we started getting them mid-December, and [laughs] and so we had one hallway completely lined with shoes. But-- so then we made a point of every time we went out on missions-- which was about three times a week, three to four times a week-- that we would take at least a couple boxes of shoes, if we could fit them, between the ammunition and everything else. [Laughs] And when we could engage in the villages, we would hand them out. Because it became very apparent to me-- again, we were somewhat lucky where we were at, at the poi-- at that time, relatively quiet, for the most part. And so, from my perspective, you know, security was really enhanced by getting out and interacting with the villages, with the communities."

"And so we're flying up to Al Kasik. I'm the last guy on this bird, and the flight crew lands, you know. There's nobody there to greet me. I have no idea, you know. I'm getting ready to walk off the ramp, and I turned to one of the crew members, and I said, "Where do I go from here?" And of course over the loud noise of the helicopter he yells in my ear, and he says, "When you step off the ramp, look to your right. You'll see a little tiny white light." And he says, "Just walk to that light." I go, "Okay." I'm hoping there's no other white lights out there. And so I get off the bird, and they take off and I'm standing there for just a second, and it is eerily quiet. And there is nothing else around me. And so I locked and loaded, just in case. I saw the white light, and I walked to it-- turned out he gave me great information. I got there, and they knew I was coming. They said, "Well, your flight to take you up to the RSU will be at 8:00 in the morning." And this was, like, 2:30, maybe 3:00 a.m. And he goes, "There's a transient tent just next to us here. If you want to sleep for a few hours you can, and we'll come wake you up." That was perfect."

"We had to get evaluated periodically, every couple years, on our nuclear capabilities. And so from the point of actually receiving a nuclear round, putting it together, and it was pretty much already intact, just a few things you had to add-- arming it, and then preparing to shoot it. Of course, didn't shoot it live, but-- and it was a training round; it wasn't an actual nuke round. But, I mean, you treated it as such. But it was a very rigorous process. And there was zero tolerance-- you just-- for failure, and you could not-- [sighs] it's not something if you passed eighty percent you were good. It was 100 percent or you failed. And so one of-- my last year as battery commander, we were doing our nuclear evaluation, and in rather strenuous situation. And the battery performed absolutely perfect."

"And it was kind of interesting, because the base commander-- where we li-- where we were located, An Numaniyah, was in an area predominantly Shia. And, the base commander was Shia, his deputy was Sunni. I was always interested to know what type of stresses there might be between those two-- nothing ever really came out, which was kind of interesting. Even when we-- well, I shouldn't say that. There-- the only time was when-- I'm going to jump around a little bit here. In February, when the Golden Dome was blown in early 2006, and Colonel Badr, the base commander, had a little tiny TV in his office-- I'm sitting in there that morning. We're having tea and coffee and talking some of the things relevant to the base-- this comes up. I-- and I look over to him, and I-- and he explains, of course, through an interpreter, to me that that's a revered Shia site. I ask him, "Is this going to be an issue for you?" And he goes, "No, I don't think it will be." And as I was leaving the office, the deputy was coming with me, deputy commander-- of course, he's-- again, he's Sunni. So I asked him the same question. And he goes, "Oh, it's going to be an issue." And because the Sunnis were blamed, and I think ultimately the Sunnis did bla-- did blow it. And that's really where the insurgency kind of started. That boiled, just about ripped that country apart, you know, in really late '06, '07, and '08 before the surge kind of patted things down a little bit."

"I finally get on a rotator flight home, and I fly into Fort Dix, New Jersey, arrive there-- again, it's midnight, 1:00 a.m. It's dark. I get off the plane. And it's cliché, but, you know, I could smell cut grass. I could smell green. Course, when I came home on R&R, it was winter, so I didn't have that luxury, or that pleasure. I get to smell that, and it was just like, "Holy mackerel!" Fresh air. I wasn't smelling sand, raw sewage, garbage, decomposition, that I had been doing for twelve months. And so it was almost sensory overload. I was only there for a few hours. Put me on a plane out of Philadelphia, back to Fort Carson."

"December 26, 2004. And our first battalion, 128th Infantry Battalion, had deployed into theater, into Iraq, in a full combat-- what we called a full-spectrum mission. And they had done their what we call a left-seat, right-seat ride, and had just taken res-- overall responsibility for their area of operations, literally, I think, four or five days prior to that. And they were in a very, very dangerous area in Samarra, in the-- in what was called the Sunni Triangle, extremely dangerous area, and violent. I'm home December 26th, and I get a phone call from my predecessor in this position as the deputy [inaudible] general, telling me that I needed to go up to Loyal, Wisconsin. One of their sol-- one of the soldiers from the battalion had been severely injured in a IED [improvised explosive device] attack, a roadside bomb-- on a foot patrol. It wasn't even in vehicles. I needed to go up and notify the family of his-- the severity of his injuries, to the extent that I could.

So I get ahold of the chaplain and mentally prepare myself to get up there-- and you got to get up there quick. And so literally-- I can't remember where Barb was, my wife, and I called her and told her what I had-- what I was doing, and I needed to go. And of course she didn't have a problem with that. So I take off, and we get up to Loyal and it turns out it was-- it was to the family of Staff Sergeant Todd Olson. His wife Nancy and children, and she's not at home, not at their house. So [sighs] we did a little search and talked to one of the neighbors and found out she was at his parents' house in that town. They were all celebrating Christmas. So we had to go over there and inform her and the kids, his parents, all of the brothers and sisters and their children-- there was no way to separate them-- that Todd had been seriously injured. And I couldn't relay it at the time he-- I mean, he had lost his legs, and, I mean, it was-- it was a very traumatic injury. And so we were with them for about, I'd say, a half an hour. And exchanged the information we needed to give them to make sure that they would-- could get the information they needed, and departed. I wasn't twenty minutes out, and I get a call back on my cell phone from, again, my predecessor, saying I needed to turn around, that he had passed. I had to get ahold of the chaplain again. And this time we had-- during the first visit we discovered which parish they belonged to in Loyal. So we went over there first and got the pastor to come with us, explained the situation. So then, you know, here's a military officer showing right back up, and they thought-- they just thought I was conveying some more information. And of course I was, but, I mean, I was telling them their dad and their husband, son, brother was dead. And to this day that event affected me tremendously both individually and professionally, and it highlighted even much more our responsibility. Soldiers are going to get hurt, soldiers are going to die in conflict. But I never really got to see that end of it, never really maybe necessarily thought of that end of it, the impacts to the families.

And thankfully, I mean, over the years, Nancy and the kids and the family, we're close friends. I'm amazed, when I first saw them again after the funeral, about two months removed-- I met with her and his parents at their request. I absolutely expected them to hate me. I would not have faulted them, to a person. I brought them the worst news they could ever imagine-- and absolutely the opposite. They were more concerned about me than themselves, which I thought was just a huge statement really reflective of the type of individuals they are, the strength of that family. So that was-- it's-- as impactful as it was to me personally and professionally, you know, I'm glad it was me that had the opportunity, if it had to happen. I guess that's all I can really say about that."

"but it would bother her if we would ever go out some place and I could run into a veteran, and it did not matter whether that veteran was a World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, we could immediately connect. And different experiences, different theater, maybe and entirely different jobs, but some very common threads and experiences, frustrations, you know, the deprivation of not being-- sometimes being able to talk to your family for weeks. Again, like I mentioned before, not knowing if you were ever going to be coming home, even seeing your house. And, you know, you can think about those things really up until the point that you are actually doing it, walking out the door and realizing that might be it, that it really comes home to you. And that's what I think are some of the common threads that veterans have, because everybody's experience is different even somebody that might be serving side by side in two units. You might have the same combat experiences, but you're going to have different emotions. You come from different places and brought up differently, everything that may lend itself to how you do or you do not react, so to speak."

"And so there were times, as I was kind of gaining my competencies as an artillery officer, and that would be in conflict with what maybe those non-commissioned officers thought. And a sign of a good leader is always to make sure to take counsel from your subordinates. And-- but then at the end of the day, the decision is yours. And you make that decision, and hopefully, again, with that wise counsel. You move out and accomplish whatever mission or whatever task you were making the decision on. And in some cases back in those days, some of the guys maybe were not as receptive to-- if the decision wasn't exactly in line with what they were thinking. And so sometimes there-- I don't want to say a force of wills, but sometimes that occurred. And so that was probably one of the earliest challenges for me."

 

Brig. Gen. Mark E. Anderson, Wisconsin's deputy adjutant general for Army, Chief Warrant Officer 5 William D. Krueck, the state's command chief warrant officer, and Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor, welcome back Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Volk Field Air National Guard Base as they return following a deployment to support hurricane relief operations, Sept. 16, 2017. On Sept. 8, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an executive order, which authorized the adjutant general to call elements of the Wisconsin National Guard to state active duty, as necessary. The 32nd IBCT and select other Wisconsin National Guard units were called to state active duty to assist Florida. 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment photo by Spc. Jared Saathoff/Released.The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 3781928. Public domain.