Straight from the Source: What the 100-year-old First Division does today

  • On his trip to Iraq, First Division Museum Director Paul Herbert met with Sgts. Christian Kim, left, of Deerfield and Vladislov Dobin of Lake Zurich.

    On his trip to Iraq, First Division Museum Director Paul Herbert met with Sgts. Christian Kim, left, of Deerfield and Vladislov Dobin of Lake Zurich. Courtesy of Paul Herbert

  • 1st Lt. Jackson Panice from Burr Ridge was headed to a memorial service for a friend killed in Iraq by a bomb.

    1st Lt. Jackson Panice from Burr Ridge was headed to a memorial service for a friend killed in Iraq by a bomb. Courtesy of Paul Herbert

  • Cpl. Sabino Desantis of Elgin is a 2014 Burlington Central High School graduate who wants to make a career of the Army.

    Cpl. Sabino Desantis of Elgin is a 2014 Burlington Central High School graduate who wants to make a career of the Army. Courtesy of Paul Herbert

  • Paul Herbert, executive director with First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, just visited the 100-year-old but still very much active group in Iraq. He is pictured with a Gulf War display that will be part of a makeover of the museum scheduled for completion in August.

      Paul Herbert, executive director with First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, just visited the 100-year-old but still very much active group in Iraq. He is pictured with a Gulf War display that will be part of a makeover of the museum scheduled for completion in August. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
By Paul Herbert
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 5/19/2017 9:55 PM
Editor's note: Paul Herbert, executive director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, recently traveled to Iraq to check in with the First Division, which has been operational since the start of World War I, 100 years ago. Herbert shares his observations in time for Armed Forces Day on Saturday.

One hundred years ago, as the U.S. entered World War I, the War Department issued orders for a "division" to go to France.

Nearly alone among the 49 divisions sent to that war, the First Division, today's 1st Infantry Division, the storied Big Red One, has been on continuous active duty ever since. This August, we will reopen our museum at Cantigny Park to tell its illustrious story.

 

As the First Division's centennial approaches, I visited its headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, and Major Gen. Joe Martin ("Danger 6"), who commands the Combined Joint Force Land Component of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led international coalition that is helping Iraq fight the Islamic State. Big Red One officers and soldiers oversee specialized training and equipping, advisers on the ground, and coalition air and artillery strikes.

Progress is slow; the Iraqi Security Forces have been trying to liberate Mosul since October. That said, their steady, painstaking advance against the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq is a far cry from their flight from the battlefield three years ago. There is reason to hope.

I also spoke to many soldiers, including Sgts. Christian Kim of Deerfield and Vladislov Dobin of Lake Zurich. Christian, an intelligence analyst, feels he is helping the Iraqis take back their country from ISIS and he can see the degradation of the terror group. Vladislov, a combat medic, clearly likes taking care of others; he sees a variety of patients, including members of the 23-nation coalition and State Department civilians.

I left Baghdad for "TQ," the U.S. and Iraqi al Taqaddum military airfield. At Camp Taji, I met 1st Lt. Jackson Panice from Burr Ridge. He was en route to a memorial service for his friend, Lt. Westin Lee, killed April 29 by an IED.

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"He was a role model," said Jackson, who serves in the 82nd Airborne, "and the reason I do what I do."

Jackson, a Hinsdale South High School graduate, is a 2015 West Point graduate on his first deployment. We spoke of life in the Army -- the big risks and the small sacrifices. Despite these, Jackson is upbeat. He counts letters, pictures and mementos from home as the things that help him cope. He told me he grew up loving Cantigny Park; I hope to see him at our grand reopening.

At TQ, a small task force of U.S. soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines carry out the mission in the critical Sunni heartland between al Fallujah and ar Ramadi. TQ is a very austere camp, a maze of concrete blast shields on hard, rocky, dusty ground under the blazing sun.

It is really Camp Manion, named in honor of Marine Lt. Travis Manion, killed in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I visited an artillery section (two howitzers) from the 1st Cavalry Division. These guns can fire in support of Iraqi army units in the surrounding area -- so far, though, they've only fired once.

Here, I met Cpl. Sabino Desantis of Elgin. He is a 2014 Burlington Central High School graduate, son of Joe and Cheryl Desantis and grandson of Vietnam War veteran Tom Cresta. Sabino wants to make the Army a career. He feels that travel and financial stability are good reasons to stay despite the hardships. Although he sorely misses his wife, Antonia, back in Elgin, he sees the relatively quiet deployment as a good chance to practice with his crew. Letters from home are especially welcome.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Iraq is but one of the world's trouble spots where the Big Red One is present or has been until very recently.

The First Division's 1st Combat Aviation Brigade just returned to Fort Riley from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. There, almost daily, the brigade airlifted Afghan forces, U.S. and coalition special forces in combat air assaults against the Taliban in the very inhospitable Afghan terrain.

Further east, in ever-dangerous Korea, is the 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. Its mission is to be ready to "fight tonight," thereby bolstering the U.S.-Republic of Korea deterrent. Not since the Big Red One was forward deployed to West Germany has a deterrence mission been so important.

In California, the First Division's 2nd Armor Brigade Combat Team is finishing a major exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Here, every detail of the brigade's performance is analyzed and assessed in brutally frank after-action reviews. Col. David Gardner and his leadership team need this grueling experience because they will deploy soon to Europe to bolster the NATO deterrent against an increasingly challenging Russia.

The team will have a month, maybe two or three, at Fort Riley between its training center rotation and the actual deployment to Europe. And it has only been a year since it was in Kuwait for nine months on Operation Spartan Shield, helping U.S. partners throughout the Persian Gulf and remaining ready to respond to a crisis anywhere in the region.

In slightly more than a year, the troops of the 1st Infantry Division have served in every hot spot around the world, illustrating how truly busy our military is. The liberal international order that has benefited the U.S. and many other countries since 1945 is under great strain. Its challengers include rising and undemocratic powers like Russia and China and petty but thoroughly dangerous dictators such as North Korea's Kim Jung-Un and radical terrorists of many stripes.

Into this milieu, the U.S. sends her soldiers, because, in a world of armed autocrats, military security forms an essential foundation for broader solutions. When the First Division arrived "Over There" in France in 1917, it heralded American power on the world stage to make the world safe for democracy -- not to implant democracy, but to provide it the safe opportunity to thrive. Today's Big Red One soldiers serve that same cause. That's the story we'll tell when our renovated museum reopens in August.

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