50th Finance Battalion gets heroes' welcome
Friday, January 28, 2005
BY TOM FEENEY Star-Ledger Staff
The accountants came marching home again.
The battalion members -- whose motto is "Financial Excellence" -- climbed out of the Humvees at the Flemington Armory on Route 12 in Raritan Township and marched inside in formation. There, they were greeted by family and friends, treated to a buffet lunch and feted with speeches and proclamations from politicians and Army brass.
"You performed your mission flawlessly," New Jersey Adjutant Gen. Glenn Rieth told them. Rieth said their return to the armory, where the unit is based, was like "the hometown team coming back to the community."
The unit was activated in December 2003. It trained for more than a month at Fort Dix, then shipped out for Kuwait. After two weeks there, it was sent to Logistical Staging Area Anaconda, a 13-square-mile American military camp on a former Iraqi air base north of Baghdad.
For most of the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army's central funding office was located in Kuwait. Money -- millions and millions of dollars wrapped in plastic and stacked on pallets -- had to be flown from the funding office into Baghdad every week.
The Louisiana unit in charge of the finance command decided it could cut down on costs and improve security by moving the central funding office to Iraq. Because the Flemington unit has so many bankers and accountants, it was selected to plan, build and manage the new office.
For five months after their arrival at Anaconda, members of the 50th were busy setting up shop. After searching for a suitable and secure location, they settled on an abandoned, non-descript tan building not far from the Balad Air Base.
They had to refurbish the structure and build a vault big enough to hold the pallets of cash. Their work was hampered by daytime temperatures that sometimes reached 140 degrees and interrupted by frequent mortar fire.
"We had mortars and rocket-propelled grenades exploding around us all the time," said Sgt. First Class Berto Diaz of Clifton. In civilian life, Diaz works in the accounting department at Konica Minolta Photo Imaging in Mahwah. In Iraq, he was the non-commissioned officer in charge of the vault.
Before the central funding office was opened, soldiers from the 50th took cash to other finance units stationed around Iraq. Several convoys from the unit saw improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, explode along the highways on which they were traveling.
"We transported millions of dollars over thousands of miles in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq," said Maj. Angelo Capolupo, commander of the 50th.
The office opened Sept. 15. It served as a bank of sorts, handling pay for soldiers and Marines from the 1st Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. It also handled payments to contractors and vendors and reimbursements for damaged Iraqi properties.
More than a half-billion dollars passed through the office during the four months it was operated by soldiers from the 50th, Capolupo said.
The mortar and RPG attacks did not let up after the facility was opened.
"We were the most mortared place in all of Iraq," said Staff Sgt. Joao Loureiro of Roselle Park. The attacks were especially bad around Ramadan, the Muslim holiday, and when the U.S. launched its offensive against the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
Loureiro said there were a couple of dozen mortar attacks in the vicinity of the central funding office during a single week in early November.
Among all that they accomplished in Iraq, there was one achievement that most pleased the friends and relatives who were sitting in folding chairs at the armory yesterday afternoon: The 50th Finance Battalion took 30 soldiers to Iraq and brought 30 soldiers back to Flemington.
Once the soldiers were given medals and good wishes, Capolupo formally released them from their active-duty status with the Guard. They were free to join their families at the buffet table and free to slip back into their civilian lives.
Loureiro, whose wife, Sarah, is a sergeant with a different New Jersey Army National Guard unit, is one of the few members of the 50th Finance Battalion whose civilian job does not involve finance.
He works as a field technician for an environmental firm, a job that keeps him out of the office more often than not.