Minnesota Guard, due home from Iraq in March, may face no more mandatory deploymentsby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota National Guard says 2,600 troops deployed in Iraq can expect to come home on schedule in 2007, one year after shipping out. A Guard commander says any additional deployments next year will likely not be mandatory.
Litchfield, Minn. — Sitting at his mom's dining room table in Litchfield, an hour west of the Twin Cities, 19-year-old Greg Brown wears the same camouflage fatigues the rest of the Minnesota Guard's First Brigade combat team have on right now in Iraq.
Brown would still be there, too, running security for convoys, had he not been seriously injured last summer. A roadside bomb exploded near the Humvee carrying Brown and two other Minnesota soldiers.
"My team leader, Sgt. Puckett, saw the IED on the side of the road," recalls Brown. "They've hit our convoys before. This is the first time they actually hit one of our trucks directly. I kept driving because that's what you're supposed to do, to get out of the kill zone. And I told Puckett I was OK, he's like, 'Yeah, I'm good too.' And Koch never responded."
Specialist Brent Koch, 22, of Morton died in the attack. Brown is recovering at home and working at the Litchfield armory.
"My arm got split open and they got a skin graft over that. And I got flash burns on my right hand, and I got a piece of shrapnel in my eye which is scarred over now, and they're looking at a cornea transplant," says Brown.
Brown does not seem to have a problem talking about his experience in Iraq. However, he is not interested in getting into the politics of the war.
He says it's not something he talks about with members of his unit who are still deployed.
"I think we'll be over there at least for another decade or so," Brown predicts. "There's no way we're going to stop every one of the bad guys over there because it's just their culture. There's always going to be that one guy that's going to say, 'Oh, let's go blow up a U.S. convoy today.' You're never going to stop it."
Greg's mom, Tarja, says she supports President Bush. But, like many Americans who respond to public opinion polls, she thinks the U.S. needs to come up with a plan to get the troops out of Iraq.
"The country as a whole has spoken," Tarja Brown says. "They've elected a Democratic majority now in Congress, so I think the country is looking for change. As the mother of a soldier that was in Iraq, I admire Greg for volunteering to go to Iraq. And for being patriotic. For doing it. However this shakes out, he was just doing his duty."
As awkward as it could come across, Tarja Brown says she's happy her son came home early, even injured. He's safe now. She no longer has to worry about him day and night.
Millions of Americans with loved ones in Iraq are dealing with constant fear and anxiety every day.
Joan Najbar's son Sam patrols Baghdad as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard's First Brigade Combat Team.
"I think it's good to check in with family members across the state because this is not on the radar of most Minnesotans. And it is so incredibly gut-wrenching every day if you are a parent of if you have a loved one there," Najbar says.
Absent the war in Iraq, Sam would be studying history at Concordia College. Najbar, a Duluth resident who's been active in the anti-war movement, is hopeful the change in Congress and change in leadership at the Pentagon will lead to a change in U.S. policy in Iraq.
"I'm glad that more Americans really understand the horrific sacrifice these men and women are making, as well as the families, and want to hold our government accountable," says Najbar.
If Najbar's hope is that her son and other soldiers might be returning from Iraq sooner than scheduled, her fear is that the Minnesota Guard troops will be ordered to stay longer than the one year they were told to expect.
"That is obviously my worry," Najbar says. "And I know it's the worry of other parents, because I'm friends with other parents who say the same thing. The worry is that they're not going to be able to come home due to the escalating violence."
In a telephone interview with Minnesota Public Radio News from southern Iraq, the commander of Minnesota's First Combat Brigade Team, Col. David Elicerio, says he has no reason to believe the Minnesota troops will NOT be coming home in about four months -- as scheduled.
"I have had no communications with my headquarters that would say that we would have anything other than the normal rotation of time here," Elicerio says. "So we should expect to complete our one-year stay here, most likely head home at the end of it. You know we came into the theater here last April, so I would expect us in a normal rotation to be home by April of this next year."
Elicerio won't speculate on how the changes at the Department of Defense and in Congress might affect Iraq policy.
"What I can tell you, though, is that it has not deterred the kids here," Elicerio says. "They're continuing with the mission and continuing to get things done in a most professional manner here."
Elicerio says the Minnesota Guard's mission has been successful so far. He says the brigade has provided security for more than one million miles of convoys and helped improve roads, water treatment and distribution facilities, and built schools.
"We are, on a daily basis, improving the quality of life for the normal Iraqi citizen, at the same time that we're executing out military mission," he says.
Even as the 2,600 members of the Minnesota's National Guard begin their 100-day homecoming countdown, about 170 Guard troops headquartered in Brainerd will soon ship out for a year-long deployment to Iraq.
The Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, Larry Shellito, says it's hard to predict what demands will be placed on his troops in 2007.
But Shellito says it's unlikely any soldier will be forced to go to Iraq or elsewhere, because virtually all of Minnesota's Guard troops have fulfilled their maximum, two-year deployment commitment.
"Anything is theoretically possible, but they'll be more in the control seat, saying that, 'I've done my duty and I'm not going to tell my wife or boss I'm volunteering to go back,'" says Shellito. "They've served and they've served very, very well, so it's going to be the volunteer Army, volunteering."
Shellito says, at least for the time being, there appears to be no shortage of soldiers willing to volunteer for Iraq.
Even Guardsman Greg Brown, recovering from his wounds at home in Litchfield, says there are times he finds himself wishing he were back in Iraq.
"It sucks because I am kind of on the fence," Brown says. "I want to be home, and I have pretty much family over there. You miss them, so you wish you were over their fighting with them still," Brown says.
- Morning Edition, 11/27/2006, 7:20 a.m.