Guardsmen from Maryland, Virginia ready to make history in the Sinai

January 13, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The Desert Panthers, most of them National Guardsmen from the Maryland-Virginia 29th Division, were eager yesterday to start six months in the Sinai Peninsula monitoring the truce line between Egypt and Israel.

Officially the 4th Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Desert Panthers are making Army history.

U.S. troops have served in the monitoring force since 1981. But the 4th Battalion is the first to combine the Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops with the regular Army for international peacekeeping duties.

The battalion is part of the Multinational Force and Observers made up of troops from various countries. Wearing distinctive rusty-orange berets and desert-camouflage uniforms, they are stationed along the truce line established in the Camp David Accords of 1979.

The light infantry battalion has slightly more than 500 members, all volunteers, said Col. H. Steven Blum of the 29th Division. About 80 percent are Guardsmen.

The first contingent will fly out Sunday and yesterday got a send-off at the headquarters of the 82nd Division where they have trained.

The U.S. is responsible for 12 observation posts in the southern sector of the Sinai, with headquarters in Sharm al-Sheikh. The observers monitor traffic, including the nomadic Bedouin and aircraft, to forestall any hostile incursions.

Most of the observation posts are in the desert but Sgt. Christopher Gill, 31, an electrician from Laurel, said he drew a choice spot -- on Tiran Island in the straits between the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia from which his squad will observe air and sea movements.

A 12-year Army veteran before he joined the National Guard seven years ago, Sergeant Gill volunteered for Operation Desert Storm but wasn't sent to the Persian Gulf.

"I really wanted a chance to see that part of the world," he said. "We just want to go over and do it."

Capt. John Nasir, 31, a former Army Ranger who served in Korea, interrupted work on his doctoral thesis in economics at the University of Maryland to volunteer.

"I've been a platoon leader and I always wanted to be a company commander," Captain Nasir said. It also is a matter of professional pride with the Desert Panthers, he said, "The Guardsmen finally feel they're able to show what they can do."

Maryland's Air National Guard has won plaudits for its work in several international operations, including in Bosnia, Somalia and Liberia but this is the first chance for the state's ground forces.

Captain Nasir said his company will handle six observation posts. Three site commanders are Guardsmen and three are regulars "and I can't tell the difference," he said.

The intensive training, particularly in small-unit tactics and field problems, has brought the men together, the captain said.

The motives for volunteering for the Sinai mission are varied as the volunteers themselves.

Spec. Cory Randle, 26, a carpenter from Arbutus, said he plans to apply for transfer to the Regular Army after the Sinai mission. Carpentry work has been short, he said, "and I want to provide a better living for my family. Most jobs in Maryland don't offer what the Army does."

Spec. William Tiggle, 34, a construction worker from Edmondson Village, said he "wanted some experience of active duty."

Sgt. Frank Jarrell, 24, of Arbutus, was on active duty two years before joining the Guard. "I wanted to go overseas again, wanted to go back on active duty for a while."

Spec. Mark Goodnight, 30, a heating and air-conditioning specialist, spent nine years in the Army and has been in the Guard nine months. "I liked the challenge of the mission and going back on active duty," he said.

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