U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Kukua gained a basic working knowledge of Arabic through a course he took in preparation for his second deployment to Iraq in June as a platoon leader with the 302nd Military Police Company. Six other TDCJ employees, including Polunsky Unit CO V Todd Tatum and Estelle Unit Sgt. Robert Stanford, will accompany him to the war zone as members of the company’s 3rd Platoon. For Tatum, a 15-year Army veteran, it will be his third deployment to Iraq since 1991. Stanford is seeing his first tour of duty since joining the Army three years ago.
“I look forward to it, actually,” said Stanford, an Army specialist. “I want to go. It’s something I want to experience.”
Kukua and Tatum, an Army sergeant who serves as a team leader within the platoon led by Kukua, say they, too, are looking forward to their year-long deployment. Both last served in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004 and say they are eager to see how the country has changed since they left.
“I’m excited about going back,” said Tatum, who has worked the death row wing at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston the past nine years. “I’m ready to go back and see what has taken place since 2003. My main concern is getting the young people serving under me back home safe so they can enjoy the rest of their lives and go around with their head held high for having served their country.”
During its last tour, the 302nd suffered no causalities in its mission of escorting military convoys through the southern part of the country. The company mission for this tour is to work with the Iraqi police stationed in an area of the country where the insurgency is much stronger.
“It’s going to be a lot more dangerous this time,” Tatum said. “We’re going to have to be on our toes and pay attention.”
Kukua, a 23-year TDCJ veteran with 21 years of military service, says he has no fear of returning to the war zone. Like Tatum, his main concern is the welfare of his soldiers.
“The biggest fear of any platoon sergeant is losing any of his people,” Kukua said. “As for me, I’ve got this belief that your life is on a set path and if something happens to you, you can’t be afraid of it. Whatever happens, happens. You’ve just got to be prepared for it. You can’t dwell on possibilities.”
Kukua’s wife, Diana, senior warden of the Garza facilities in Beeville, said she’s confident that her husband will return safely.
“I’m not afraid at all that anything is going to happen to him,” Warden Kukua said. “I have no doubts that he’s coming back. And when he went before, I had no fear. I never felt like he was not coming back. And I feel that way this time. I know he’ll come back. You just have to believe.”
A month before deploying, Tatum, 37, married his fiancé of two years, Misty. He now has a 4-year-old stepdaughter. Stanford, 26, wed his wife, Vanessa, a correctional officer at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, three years ago. They have a 2-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter.
“That part worries me, but I’ll be alright,” Stanford said about his first deployment to Iraq. “My wife doesn’t like it too much, but she’s accepted it. Things cross your mind as to what could happen, but it’s a risk that comes with signing your name on the dotted line. There are hazards in both of my jobs. Things can happen at work and things can happen there. Either way, something could happen. I worry a little bit, but I’m not scared. Cautious would be a better word. If you’re scared, you really can’t do your job. I’m just going to go do my job and take it day for day.”
Stanford said it’s comforting to be going to Iraq with the 44-year-old Kukua, whom he knows from TDCJ.
“It’s nice to know that I’ve got somebody over me there who knows me here, also,” he said. “He looks out for us.”
Tatum first went to Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He later left the regular Army, but joined the Reserves following the terrorist attack on America in 2001.
“After 9/11, I started seeing all the young kids that were in the military and I figured I’d go back in and share my experience with them,” he said. “There’s something about Iraq. I can’t seem to stay away from it.”
Tatum said he was heartened by the reaction of the townspeople during his last tour in Iraq.
“The people were very grateful for us being there,” he said. “You’d have moms and dads and little kids running out to the street wanting to give you a hug and a kiss and say, ‘thank you.’ So I’d like to see this thing through. I guess I don’t want to let those people down.”