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Exhausted troops yearn for home

National Guard units tired, but "nobody's going to mutiny"

by Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, 18 July 2003


BAGHDAD, July 18 -- One night in mid-March, three days before the Iraq war began, 30 Florida National Guardsmen swung picks and shovels in the Iraqi desert. Until they were called up on the day after Christmas, they had been bartenders, salesmen, police officers and firefighters. Now they were assigned to support a Special Forces unit, which needed them to knock a Humvee-size hole through a huge sand berm on the Jordan-Iraq border.

WHEN THEY finished, Spec. Jeffrey Wershow, a tall and exuberant 22-year-old college student from Gainesville, ran to the top of the berm to wave the Special Forces on. A video from that night showed him, like an earlier generation of soldiers on Iwo Jima, raising a standard toward the sky, this time flying the Stars and Stripes above the Florida state flag.

Four months later, Wershow and another guardsman from Charlie Company are dead, among the first National Guard combat fatalities in more than a decade. The remaining soldiers from the unit, part of the largest force of National Guard troops in combat since the Korean War, are still bunked down in Baghdad, wondering when they will get to return to the civilian lives they left behind more than half a year ago, some on 24 hours' notice.

"We thought Hurricane Andrew was the worst it would ever get in the National Guard," said Sgt. Walton E. Lowrey, 37, of Ocala. "When this call came, even though we were stupefied and astonished that we were actually going to war, we were honored and we were ready to come."

"But now these guys have seen a lot and endured a lot," Lowrey said, standing in a Baghdad Convention Center lounge that has been turned into a crowded barracks. "And it's outside the scope of what the National Guard has been used for in the past. They deserve, and they have earned, the right to go home."


All over Iraq, exhausted and increasingly on-edge troops are beginning to wonder aloud when they will be sent back to the States. Many have endured blinding sandstorms, extreme heat, homesickness and months of eating nothing but military MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. Now they also face unnerving and intensifying guerrilla-style assaults that have killed 35 soldiers since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over.

Many units, particularly those stationed at outlying bases where there is little relief from temperatures that rise daily to more than 110 degrees, are increasingly suffering from fatigue and frustration.

Some, including the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, have been away from home since last September. After several conflicting announcements about when the outfit would leave Iraq, both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said it would be home by September.

A few members of the division caused a minor ruckus this week when they vented their frustration to interviewers and criticized Rumsfeld by name, prompting a public rebuke from Abizaid at his first news conference as commander.

But in interviews with numerous soldiers here, it is clear that while many are bitter about the long deployment and uncertain departure dates, more accept those facts as unpleasant realities of their job. "We want to go home, but nobody's going to mutiny," Lowrey said.

"It's definitely stressful, but it's no different than what I saw years ago," said Staff Sgt. Paul E. Stevens, 53, a Vietnam veteran and the oldest member of Charlie Company. "It's pretty common for people to complain. It's always been that way."


For National Guard troops, whose role is fast expanding in U.S. military strategy, the frustration of being away from home has added dimensions. Most of them are older soldiers, many in their thirties, who left active duty and thought their combat days were behind them.

"We are not weekend warriors anymore, we are in the line of fire," said Rich Arnold, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, a private Washington-based group that lobbies on behalf of the Guard. "A lot of people who signed up for the Guard are not used to the mission they have been given in the last two years."

Reggie Saville, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, an office of the Defense Department, said that 90,000 Army and Air National Guard personnel have been mobilized for the Iraq war and another 26,000 have been placed on alert for possible deployment.

Saville said that is the largest number of Guard troops in combat since the Korean War; 75,000 were mobilized for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He also noted that Guard units have been in combat in Iraq longer than at any time since the Vietnam War.

"It's had an effect on small-town U.S.A.," Arnold said, noting that many municipalities are missing their police officers, firefighters, shopkeepers and others who have been called up. "It's had a ripple effect."

At least six National Guardsmen have been killed in combat in Iraq, Saville said. None were killed by hostile fire in the Gulf War, although several were killed in non-combat accidents.

He said the Guard's changing role is largely due to the fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Everything is changing for the Guard. . . . We never had the World Trade Center [attack] before," he said.

Of the U.S. Army's 10 combat divisions, the equivalent of six are already here in Iraq. With troops stretched thin, the National Guard has been called up in record numbers.

After marching through the desert during the war, the soldiers of Charlie Company are now assigned to provide security for the Baghdad Convention Center, where Iraq's new Governing Council was introduced last weekend.

The soldiers have turned two lounges into temporary barracks filled with wall-to-wall canvas cots and the usual decorations of soldiers at war: photos of their children in football uniforms, calendars of sports cars and pinups, portable DVD players and an armory's worth of flak jackets, machine guns and grenade launchers.

They say it is nicer than the sheep pen they camped in for almost a week when they arrived in Baghdad on May 28. And the showers in the basement are better than their old "bird baths," their name for giving themselves showers with baby wipes and a bucket of water.


Most are used to the conditions. Probably three-quarters of the unit's members have served in the military on active duty, and many fought in the Gulf War. But most said they thought their wartime days were behind them and that National Guard duty would consist simply of the standard training formula: one weekend a month, plus two weeks a year.

Lowrey and others said they had no regrets about coming to Iraq and still believed they are doing important work that will improve life here. But they said the financial burden on them was generally greater than on full-time, active duty soldiers who are accustomed to a military salary.

"There's a lot of guys who have had to give up jobs and sacrifice all kinds of salary to be here," said Lowrey, who had to close his private investigator's business because of his long absence. He estimated that he is losing at least $1,200 a month while away from home.

Spec. Jared Cruze, 36, a 1985 graduate of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, joined the Guard because of Sept. 11. He had an aunt who worked in the World Trade Center and an uncle who worked in the Pentagon. Three weeks after the attacks, he enlisted in the Guard in his new home town of Orlando.

"We don't mind doing our job here, but we had seven days to get ready to come here," Cruze said. "It's a crusher, mentally and physically."

Cruze said the long deployment to Iraq has cost him financially. He said he makes more money tending bar in Orlando for a night or two than he does in a week in the Guard. And his plans to start his own business have been put on ice.

"It's definitely hit my pocket, and hit it hard," said Cruze, who predicted that an increasing combat role for the National Guard would cut enlistments. "Retention rates in the Guards will hit an all-time low."


Everyone in the unit said Wershow's death was the worst moment of going to war. Wershow was killed by a single bullet to the head on July 6 as he was walking out of a cafeteria at Baghdad University, where he was providing security to visiting American education specialists.

Charlie Company is part of the 2nd Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment of the Florida National Guard, which dates to the 1880s. Wershow was the unit's first combat casualty since 1945, said Saville, the Pentagon official.

Sgt. Robert Hardwick was with Wershow when he was killed. They had separated for just a moment, while Wershow went into a cafeteria for a soda. Hardwick said he watched him go in, buy the drink and emerge with a grin on his face. They made eye contact, then Hardwick said he turned away for a moment and heard a single gunshot, fired point-blank by an assailant who disappeared back into the crowd.

"I've seen a lot of death in my life," said Hardwick, 32, a police officer in St. Augustine who was on active duty with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1989 to 1993 and served in the Gulf War. "But when it hits so close to home, it's harder to swallow."

Sgt. Daniel Jackson, 39, who works for UPS and served 11 years on active duty, including in the Gulf War, said that despite the hardships the soldiers are enduring, he is not ready to go home. He said he has been nagged for years that the U.S. military left Iraq too early in 1991, and the Iraqi people continued to suffer terribly under Saddam Hussein.

"We've all made sacrifices and we all want to go home," Jackson said. "But if we leave now and nothing changes, missing my son Daniel's high school graduation was for nothing. I want to make sure our sacrifices mean something."

Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post Company
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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