Guard returning to Midwest under secrecyby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota National Guard says it's awaiting the arrival of the first major wave of returning 1st Brigade Combat Team troops. The brigade has been in Iraq for about 16 months. Guard officials say all the troops, including 2,600 Minnesotans, will be back in the U.S. by the end of the month with most arriving within the next several days.
Fort McCoy, Wis. — Military officials are not releasing specifics about how many troops will be coming in the first major wave, nor do they want flight schedules made public.
In most cases the soldiers are being ferried out of Iraq on C-130 planes to a base near Kuwait City. From there they are transported via private 20-hour charter flights to Volk Field, an air base in west central Wisconsin. It's then just a short, several-minutes-long bus ride to Fort McCoy.
Lt. Col. Robert Larsen of the 1st Brigade left Iraq a month ago to help prepare for the demobilization at Fort McCoy. He says right now the bulk of the brigade is at some stage of the journey back home.
The arrival of the soldiers at Fort McCoy will not be marked with the homecoming reunions the troops, and their families and friends, have been so anxiously awaiting.
Before being bused to their local armories in Minnesota for those homecomings, the troops must first demobilize at Fort McCoy. For most of the units, Guard officials say that deactivation will take about eight days.
Lt. Col. Larsen say the process will cover a lot of ground, including health care, legal paperwork and reintegration counseling.
"We collect their weapons and ship those back to their units. The soldiers then go through a myriad of briefings to lay out for them the benefits that they will receive as a combat veterans," he said. "The Veterans Affairs people will be here from Minnesota to provide briefings to them, as well as enroll them into the Veterans Association. We go through a myriad of medical checks, dental checks to make sure that we send the soldiers home in as good of shape as they left."
Maj. Mary Lou Tomko is in charge of the Army's soldier readiness program at Fort McCoy. Troops are regularly mobilized and demobilized at the fort, but Tomko says to accommodate the large Minnesota brigade, she has greatly expanded processing facilities.
In addition to getting more space, Tomko says members of the Minnesota brigade are getting about a full additional day of reintegration counseling than has been the standard at Fort McCoy.
"This particular group of soldiers that are going through the demobilization process will have an extra time at Fort McCoy for reintegration," she said.
The soldiers of the Minnesota Army National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team have been away from home for nearly two years. They left Minnesota in the fall of 2005 for six months of training at military posts in the southern United States. They shipped out for Iraq in March of 2006.
They were supposed to come home last spring, but their time in Iraq was extended under President Bush's troop surge.
While the Minnesota brigade is made up primarily of Minnesotans, its 5,000 soldiers come from 22 states and not all are Guard troops.
In Iraq they were responsible largely for a variety of security duties, including protecting convoys and guarding bases.
Not all of them will be coming home. Twenty-two died in Iraq -- 14 of them in combat. Seven of those combat deaths were Minnesotans, all of whom were killed by "improvised explosive devices."
"Our soldiers in Iraq right now are looking much to coming home to their families," Larsen said. It's been a long, long deployment. Our family members deserve to get their soldiers back in the very near future, and everybody has a lot to look forward to here in the upcoming weeks."
Guard officials say the active duty Army -- "big Army" as they call it -- will keep tight reins on members of their 1st Brigade Combat Team while Fort McCoy.
Family and friends are being asked to stay away, the soldiers will have regimented schedules. They will not be allowed to leave the base nor will they be allowed to consume alcohol.