Utah's top general: A generation at war with more to come

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 27 2011 5:09 p.m. MST

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet of the Utah National Guard salutes as the flag is presented at the Utah Healing Field 9/11 Flag Memorial and Hope Rising Unveiling Ceremony at Sandy City Hall on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

DRAPER — War is … personal.

"I thought I understood, and I thought I could sympathize with these families in having a soldier or an airman deployed," said Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet.

And he could. Tarbet has made 11 troop visits to battle zones in the Middle East and more visits to Utah troops in Asia since becoming commanding general of the Utah National Guard in 2000.

During that span, a generation of children raised with war in Iraq and Afghanistan  would grow up and choose to serve in an all-volunteer military after spending their formidable years with media images of their country at war.

"They have been watching the coffins coming off the planes. They have been seeing the wounded … and yet they're willing to serve. They're more than willing to serve," Tarbet said. "The caliber of people we're getting today is pretty encouraging. I'm not one of the doomsayers about the next generation. These are pretty remarkable young people."

The two-star general's confidence, and his sympathy, grew into something bigger during his next-to-last year as Utah's adjutant general. In June, his son, Christopher, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, shipped out to Afghanistan with the Guard's 211th Aviation Battalion.

"That's now empathy," he said, reflecting on how he and his wife and daughter-in-law all interact with a son, husband and soldier.

"I hear from Christopher quite frequently," said Tarbet, who will retire next year. "It's a strange thing when I know he's 10-and-a-half time zones away and he sounds like he's right next door."

American troops are recently out of Iraq, but the conflict in Afghanistan lingers. Tarbet said the Utah National Guard had a busy 2011 and will be just as busy in 2012 — just in one battle zone instead of two.

Tarbet said he's been surprised by the way his forces have handled their deployment obligations.

"If you would have asked me 10 years ago could we have done what we've done, I would have thought, 'Yeah, and we'd have about 50 percent strength now.'" But reality has been different. We're sitting at 100-plus percent strength," he said. "We turn people away."

Tarbet calls the many troop visits the best part of his job. But not all of that pride is for the troops' work as warriors.

"To go to a church service with deployed soldiers — it's a remarkable event," he said. "As you go in, you sit down and the M-4s and the M-16s clatter to the floor. The 9-millimeters are taken off, and you have a church service. You never forget that."

Then the airmen and soldiers mix with the people whose countries they are in.

"You never forget watching them in a war environment, carrying out humanitarian projects — school supplies, toys, adopting an orphanage," Tarbet said. "It happens every time you plunk one of our units down. They're out there trying to make something positive out of all this negative.

"And then just to watch the great professionalism of these young people as they take care of each other. And this is, no doubt, a serious combat environment. To see the devotion they have to each other, to bring their battle buddy home, that's a pretty rewarding thing," he said.

Working with the "gold star" families of troops killed in action, and the needs of those who come home needing jobs, medical treatment — or both — is also personal.

"We're putting some strains on these families and these young people, but we're working really hard to mitigate it and bring solutions to problems," he said.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com

Twitter: SteveFidel

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