Tennessee Guard Soldier Stays in Iraq to Continue Her Work

MUQDADIYAH, Iraq – The largest deployment of Tennessee Army National Guard history ended in November when members of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment redeployed to Tennessee, but a handful of the Knoxville, Tennessee-based unit opted to remain here.

The highest-ranking member of the regiment to stay is Maj. Rhonda Keisman. The 27-year Guard veteran remains as the military civilian affairs officer for the 1-32 Cavalry, which replaced the 278th at Forward Operating Base Normandy.

“I’ve spent two Thanksgivings, two Christmases and two New Years here,” Keisman said. “Actually, the holidays are just another day here. The only thing that makes them a holiday is that we usually have a special meal in the mess hall.”

Keisman arrived with the regiment in October 2004. As the 278th prepared to leave Iraq last fall, she had planned to return with them. Then, the incoming command asked her to stay.

“I only wanted to stay to work with the people I have worked with in the area for the 278th,” she said. “I’m doing my same job, and live in my same room. I thought it was a good opportunity and I was attached to my job so I said, ‘Sure.'”

Keisman serves as the Army’s liaison to the local Iraqi governments. She often meets with mayors and city and state officials and coordinates U.S. aide to the Iraqi people.

During her year with the 278th, Keisman handled more than $14 million in projects. She currently has $7.5 million in ongoing projects on the board.

These projects entail improvements to Iraqi schools, hospitals and infrastructure facilities such as water, electricity and garbage disposal. She has even funded the construction of a women’s center.

A Mississippi native, Keisman said schools are a matter close to her heart. She is proud that many of the surrounding communities have new school buildings.

“All the schools are in bad shape,” Keisman said. “They need so much. The schools are so much better than what they had. They aren’t up to what we’re used to, but for them it’s a castle.”

Keisman represents the military throughout the negotiations with Iraqi contractors who do the actual construction. She handles most of the eastern Diyala province, which includes three cities whose populations are more than 100,000 and many other smaller villages.

“I initiate the contract, sign the contract with them and, at that time, we establish when payments will be made and I make the payments to them,” Keisman said.

Keisman’s current boss, Lt. Col. Arthur A. Kandarian, commander, 1-32 Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, said she has filled a crucial role for his unit. Had she not extended, he had no other experienced officer to use in that job.

“She has provided continuity,” Kandarian said. “She was doing this for a year with the 278th and she knows the system.” The transition between the 278th and her new unit has gone well, Keisman said. Although she admits she was nervous at first.

“It was sad watching the 278th leave because I felt like I’m all alone now and I don’t know anybody,” Keisman said. “It’s been a good unit and they have treated me absolutely fine.”

Keisman plans to return to Tennessee this summer and back to her regular job as a labor relations officer for the Guard. She has no regrets about lengthening her stay in Iraq. “I find satisfaction from helping the people,” she said. “That’s why I stayed.”

“It’s very fulfilling to see the accomplishments with what we are doing with the local villages and the infrastructure out there.”

There is still a lot to be done, but Keisman remains optimistic. She said a lone battalion is now doing what the regiment, which consists of four battalions, was once doing.

“We still have the bad things, but that’s not my job,” Keisman said. “My job is to do the good things that help the people.”

Specialist Lee Elder is a photographer and writer with the 133d Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, based in Iraq.