Elements of the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion are preparing, once again, to
deploy into a combat zone. Perhaps within days, they will be on their way to
Iraq. It will be the Army Reserve unit’s second deployment in three years.
The battalion, based in Knoxville, Tenn., spent most of 2002 in Afghanistan.
Before that, the 489th was in Bosnia.
“We’ve been busy,” the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Don
Amburn, told National Defense. “I wonder how much more I can ask of these
The 489th is part of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations
Command (Airborne), within the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Civil affairs specialists work with local governments and international humanitarian
organizations to rebuild infrastructure and restore stability in areas stricken
by war or natural disasters. In their civilian lives, they serve in city and
county government, law enforcement, medical, banking and customer-service occupations.
The deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are the largest for civil affairs units
since World War II, and such units are in short supply. The Army has one active-duty
civil affairs battalion. Most civil affairs specialists—96 percent of
the total—are in the reserves.
Civil affairs reservists are accustomed to spending one weekend per month and
two weeks per year in military service. Lately, however, they have been deployed
repeatedly for months on end. For example, Amburn—who works for an insurance
brokerage firm—has been out of uniform only for six months since 2000,
U.S. military leaders recognize they need more civil affairs specialists. At
his confirmation hearing last year, USSOCOM’s commander, Army Gen. Bryan
D. Brown, told senators that, in 2004 and 2005, his command plans to add one
active-duty company and one reserve battalion of civil affairs specialists.
While those units are assembled, existing organizations are getting a lot of
use. Seven months after the 489th returned from Bosnia, it was ordered to Afghanistan.
During nearly 10 months in Afghanistan, the battalion teams of six to 12 individuals—called
Coalition Humanitarian Liaison Cells—implemented more than 120 quick-impact
reconstruction projects worth $6 million, according to a pending Meritorious
“The unit was given perhaps the most challenging mission ever entrusted
to a U.S. Army Reserve battalion, requiring it to operate in small CHLCs across
a combat zone the size of Texas, while tackling tasks directly impacting on
the success of U.S. national interests in Afghanistan,” said the citation.
The CHLCs (pronounced “Chicklets”) became the backbone of the U.S.
coalition’s effort to rebuild Afghanistan. They worked with U.S. and coalition
government and non-governmental organizations on the reconstruction of 15 medical
facilities, 77 schools, 205 wells and more than 300 kilometers of irrigation
canals. To do the actual labor, the CHLCs hired more than 18,000 Afghan workers.
The battalion’s medical officer became the primary doctor for the former
king of Afghanistan and his family, as well as the president and his cabinet.
The 489th’s veterinary officer—at her own expense—purchased
and delivered live animals to enable a graduating veterinary in Kabul to operate
on actual animals for the first time in 10 years.
Many members of the battalion initiated hometown drives for school supplies
and clothes. The drives provided hundreds of boxes of humanitarian assistance,
which were distributed to the population.
In March 2002, a massive earthquake struck, killing hundreds and leaving thousands
homeless. Responding to a United Nations request for assistance, the battalion
launched a response team within three hours.
Many of the teams served in isolated areas, with no more than 20 other U.S.
soldiers within hundreds of miles. They came under small arms and rocket fire
more than two dozen times.
Another team, arriving at its assigned post, found their vehicles being stoned
by the hostile local population. As the team built rapport with local leaders,
however these attacks tapered off, Amburn said.
The battalion also provided civil affairs support in combat operations along
the Pakistani border. Teams accompanied units from the 82nd Airborne, 101st
Air Assault and 10th Mountain Divisions, as well as the British Royal Marines
and other special operations forces.
In one case, a team member provided medical care under fire to an Afghan district
governor who was shot accidentally by his own men during a confrontation with
For their efforts, battalion members, in addition to the recommended unit citation,
received such awards as the Bronze Star, Joint Commendation Medal and Army Commendation
Soon after the battalion returned from Afghanistan in December 2002, rumors
began circulating about another deployment—this time to Iraq.
Some of the soldiers whose enlistments expired chose to leave the service.
Others sought transfers to units less likely to deploy.
“When they first came back, we were losing people at a pretty good rate,”
said Amburn, who took over the battalion at about that time.
Amburn said he went to some of his best commissioned and non-commissioned officers
and said to them: “I know you’re thinking of transferring, but I
need you to stay. And they were, like, ‘OK.’ They just needed to
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘Oh
boy, it was great being gone last year. Let’s go again.’ But we’re
one of the best units they have, so there’s a lot of pride.”
The 489th consists of 125 men and women, including 65 to 70 officers, Amburn
explained. A lot of them are small-business owners.
“Our veterinarian just opened her own clinic a couple of years ago,”
he said. “I call her ‘the Steel Magnolia.’ She served in the
First Gulf War, and she was in Bosnia and Afghanistan. She has two boys. She’s
not going on this next deployment.” None of the health specialists are
being deployed this time, Amburn said.
The deployment to Iraq will include almost 100 members of the battalion, divided
into two detachments. Amburn couldn’t say, in advance, where in Iraq they
will be headed.
The two groups trained for two weeks in December in Texas and Mississippi,
and returned home to Knoxville for the holidays, he explained. They were scheduled
to depart for Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters of CAPOC, and then to deploy to
Iraq for a year.
The battalion’s troops are armed with the weapons typically used by the
National Guard and reserves—9 mm pistols and M16 rifles. “We’ve
been asking for the [newer] M4 [carbines] for longer than I can remember.
“The vehicles will be Humvees that we fall into when we arrive in country,
he said. “It would be nice to have a couple of hardened Humvees with M2
50 cal. machine guns or Mark 19 grenade launchers for traveling purposes or
for missions where we are deployed more or less on our own.”
The good news, Amburn said, is that he has been assured that getting the latest
Interceptor body armor will not “be an issue.”
Amburn also takes some comfort in the December capture of Iraqi President Saddam
“The timing couldn’t be better,” he said. Although hostilities
probably wouldn’t cease immediately, there could be a gradual tapering
off “as people realize that Saddam is out of the picture,” he said.
Civil affairs soldiers often put themselves at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They accompany U.S. combat troops in raids seeking “high-value targets,”
as leaders of al Qaeda, Taliban and pro-Saddam forces are called. “Our
job is to help find people to point out the HVTs, calm the local citizens and
reassure the village elders,” Amburn said.
Casualties sometimes result. One CA died in an ambush while on a mission to
inspect a water treatment plant. Another perished in a traffic accident in Baghdad.
Four more, members of a public health team, were wounded in an ambush, also
Amburn, however, is confident that the personnel being deployed this time will
be prepared for what they encounter. Of those being deployed, “85 percent
are veterans,” he said, “and that speaks well for their chances
CA troops also are trained to accompany airborne units. “We serve with
the whole XVIII Airborne Corps, and that includes the 82nd Airborne Division,
the 101st Air Assault Division and the 10th Mountain Division. We have to go
wherever they go.”
Although he is the battalion commander, Amburn will not be deploying to Iraq,
and he is not comfortable with that fact. “It leaves a bad taste in my
mouth that I’m going to be safe and warm here, while my people are headed
into harm’s way,” he said.
During the deployment, Amburn plans to spend his time in Knoxville recruiting
new troops. He is concerned about more personnel losses when the deployed units
return. “While they’re gone, my main focus will be on recruiting
One way to attract more recruits to the National Guard and reserves, Amburn
said, would be to allow them full access to the Defense Department’s Tricare
Currently, Tricare is available mainly to active-duty service members, retirees
and their families. Members of reserve components and their families are eligible
only if the reservist is activated for more than 30 consecutive days.
“A lot of my troops don’t have access to health insurance through
their civilian jobs,” Amburn said. “I have a young spec 4 with a
kid who lives in the projects. That’s real tough. Tricare would be a huge
boost for them. It would be for a lot of people.”