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Will Schiek ('87) leads more than 500 U.S. soldiers providing logistics, security and communications for their Iraqi counterparts
Lt. Col. Will Schiek ('87) (center) talks with his Iraqi counterparts about security and communications.
Colleen Dixon, a contributing Madison editor, had a chance to speak with Lt. Col. Will Schiek ('87), commander, 4th Sustainment Brigade Troops Battalion, Taji, Iraq.
Schiek joined the ROTC program during his freshman year at JMU. He attended summer camp and Airborne School and was commissioned in his junior year under the early commissioning program. Schiek graduated in 1987 as a second lieutenant with a B.S. in political science and a minor in German.
Now a lieutenant colonel, Schiek is commander of the 4th Sustainment Brigade Troops Battalion stationed in Taji, Iraq. He took command of the newly created unit in 2004. The soldiers organized and trained to deploy to Iraq in only nine months.
Madison: How do you pronounce your last name? Has it been the source of any ribbing, being in the Middle East with a name that looks like "sheik?"
Schiek: My last name is pronounced SHIKE. I have had some chuckles with the Iraqis who think my last name is sheik. Every local community here has a sheik and sometimes the Iraqis give me some grief, but it's all in good humor.
Madison: What are some fond memories of JMU?
Schiek: Playing on the lacrosse club team. Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. Working at Massanutten resort during the ski season. Best times were spent at 647 South Mason Street with my roommates: Shannon Byrne, Dave Sweat, Andres Salinas, Jeff Jenkins and John Tyler. Swimming at Union Springs and Hone Quarry. Goofing off at Reddish Knob. Meeting my wife-to-be, Rebecca Holshey, who was a member of Kappa Sigma sorority -- my roommate, Shannon Byrne, introduced us. Rebecca and I dated during my junior and senior years and were married a year after I graduated. We have been married for 20 years.
Madison: What led to your decision to join the Army?
Schiek: My father served for 27 years in the Army. While I was at JMU, dad was the professor of military science at Virginia Tech. He was a major influence in my decision. I enjoyed moving around as a kid and liked the idea of following in his footsteps. My mom thought it was a pretty good career move, too. The best part of finishing ROTC and having a full-time job was that I did not have to buy a suit and interview for jobs like my roommates.
Madison: Where were you stationed prior to this tour?
Schiek: I've been assigned to Fort Carson, Colo., Fort Espinar in the Republic of Panama and Fort Bragg, N.C. I went to graduate school in Washington, D.C., and afterwards was stationed in Seoul, South Korea. My next tours in the states were at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Hood, Texas; the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Fla. I'm back at Fort Hood now.
Madison: Are these all the moves you've made in your career?
Schiek: I've moved 11 times since I came on active duty. I left out a year of school in San Antonio between Panama and Fort Bragg. I made eight moves while I was growing up: from Washington, D.C., to Kansas, back to D.C., D.C. to California, then Germany then back to D.C. I guess that makes 19 total moves I've made in my lifetime.
Madison: How is your family dealing with your absence?
Schiek: Our son Matthew was born while I was assigned in South Korea. He is 8 years old and is dealing with the separation quite well. My wife and son are at Fort Hood. Living on a military installation has made the separation a bit easier for the family. They are surrounded by other families with deployed parents. My son started third grade this year and several of his classmates also have parents in Iraq. The first time I was in Iraq, he was a bit younger and didn't really understand what was going on. Now that he's older, he knows there is a war and that I could be hurt. He also knows we are here helping the Iraqi people and is very proud of me.
Madison: How does the 4th Sustainment Brigade Troops Battalion operate?
Schiek: There are 553 soldiers assigned to the 4th Sustainment Brigade Troops Battalion. Originally organized to provide logistics and communications support, the unit picked up some additional missions in Iraq. We have more than 180 soldiers working in guard towers protecting the camp from the bad guys. The camp has entry control points, and groups conduct regular reconnaissance operations along the routes to prevent insurgents from placing Improvised Explosive Devices. We picked up additional missions to train the Iraqi soldiers in the 6th Motor Transport Regiment, the Taji National Depot, and the National Maintenance Facility, and to oversee all logistics for the 6th, 8th, and 9th Iraqi Army Divisions.
We arrived in Kuwait in September 2005 and went through several days of training and acclimation to the heat. We moved into Iraq early in October and have been stationed at Camp Taji, 15 miles north of Baghdad, since then. The battalion has been here during a very historic period in the development of the Iraqi government. We supported the Baghdad area during the last election, the referendum and the seating of the interim government. We also provided support during the month of Ramadan, the Saddam Hussein trial, and in the wake of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Lt. Col. Will Schiek ('87), commander, (second from left) 4th Sustainment Brigade Troops Battalion, takes time out for a photos with Iraqi officers in Taji, Iraq.
We formed bonds with our Iraqi counterparts. I became close with the 6th Motor Transport Regiment commander and one of the interpreters. We spent hours talking about our families, our hobbies, how things in Iraq used to be in the old army under Saddam Hussein, how similar our beliefs are, and how the media always portray the opposing side as bad people. The regimental commander admitted that before working with Americans, his opinion of us, as evildoers, had been formed by the former dictator and the media. Once he began working with us, he changed his opinion and now holds us in high regard. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be working side by side with Iraqi Army soldiers, training them to provide for their country's defense.
We occasionally ate with our Iraqi unit, dishes made with lamb, fish and chicken. It was all edible, but I don't think I'm going to be opening a chain of Iraqi fast food restaurants. I try all the food that is put in front of me. I've been in some interesting countries and have eaten a lot of interesting food. Fortunately, I have a strong stomach and rarely get sick.
My Iraqi counterpart complained a bit about the process to get fuel for his unit but that was really his only complaint. We assisted with pay and equipment issues. His main concerns were for the health, welfare and security of his family, his soldiers and himself. We are still trying to assist him with health care for his son. His son was born with a hole in his heart. We are attempting to get the son and mother sent to Japan for the surgery. A Japanese donor is offering this surgery at no cost.
Madison: Who are some significant officers and soldiers you've served with?
Schiek: My executive officer, command sergeant major and operations officer are the three people with whom I've spent many hours. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by great senior officers and fantastic soldiers and non-commissioned officers. We worked very well together this year, and I'm extremely proud of what they've done and all we've accomplished. I am humbled to have served with such great professionals. My boss has been a great influence on me since we've been in Iraq. He gives clear, concise guidance and then lets us do the job. It's a pleasure to have worked for Col. Gus Perna for the last two years.
Madison: What is "normal" now that wasn't when you first arrived?
Schiek: Normal now is being woken up by explosions and small arms fire. It was a bit unusual at first, but now it is not as exciting as it was when we arrived. The other thing that is normal now are the daily temperatures over 115 degrees in the summer and calf-deep mud during the rainy season. The area lacks the public works that we take for granted in the States. Drainage here is horrible. In the winter, which is the rainy season here, rain just accumulates with nowhere to go.
Madison: What's been the hardest part of being in Iraq?
Schiek: The hardest part of being here is the separation from family. It is much easier being here knowing exactly what is going on than it is for family members back home that rely on the sensationalized news coverage for their information. Since the news seems to focus on the death and destruction, that is all the family members believe is happening here. There are many positive things going on in Iraq that do not get coverage. We get to see the good and the bad. Family members just get to see the bad.
Madison: What has been the best part?
Schiek: The best part of being here this past year was our work with the 6th Motor Transport Regiment. I had a chance to learn about the local customs and the history of Iraq. I hadn't realized how significant the country of Iraq is in the Bible. I took time to read for pleasure. I had time to stay in good physical shape. This was a great year. We worked hard, did a great job, brought everyone home alive and made an impact for our Army and Iraq.
Madison: What types of books did you read for pleasure?
Schiek: I read some Middle-East history, Lawrence of Arabia bios and autobiography, World War I history, history of Middle-East warfare, the Bible, history of the Bible and all the Jack Higgins and John Grisham books I could get my hands on.
Madison: What are your thoughts as you are wrapping up your time in Iraq?
Schiek: My emotions are mixed. I am extremely excited to get reacquainted with my family. At the same time, I'm a bit sad about having to leave the Iraqi soldiers and interpreters we have been working with for the last year. I know the Iraqi army is much better than it was when we arrived. I know their army will continue to grow. I can't help but feel sorry for the local people who are victims of the sectarian violence. I've been assigned overseas in the past and have maintained contact with many co-workers. I plan to maintain contact with the regimental commander and some of the interpreters.
Madison: How have you changed as a result of this tour?
Schiek: I would say I've become more tolerant, but there are many soldiers in the unit that would probably disagree. Every time you deploy to a war zone, your priorities change a bit. Family was already No. 1 before I came over here this time, but I think I value my family even more now. When you are deployed some things just aren't as important as they seem to be when you are at home.
Everything is relative. Discomfort is relative, suffering is relative. We take so much for granted in the states. Security, safety, comfort, material goods ... those things can't be taken for granted in Iraq. There is always a security risk when there are people trying to kill you. Everything we do is dangerous, many of the things we do are uncomfortable, and it's amazing how little we actually need to survive. I think I may have rearranged my priorities to look at things in a different perspective. I tend not to get upset over the small things after a deployment. After living on the basics in a hostile environment, it's just nice to get home and appreciate the little things we usually take for granted, like nice roads to drive on. Or things like law and order, public works and a clean place to live. It will be nice to have some privacy.
Editor's note: Lt. Col. Schiek returned to Texas in September. "Not much culture shock since I've returned," he says. After a few months home, he has done some of his favorite things: "gone duck hunting and dove hunting and fishing."