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Avoiding politics is unspoken rule

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- If you want to make members of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing uncomfortable, ask them whether they think the United States should be here.

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- If you want to make members of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing uncomfortable, ask them whether they think the United States should be here.

The roughly 300 Minnesota Air National Guard members at Balad Air Base all volunteered to be in Iraq. No one interviewed doubted their mission.

Many have come to Iraq for their second two-month or longer deployment in the past two years. Some asked to stay even longer.

"If you want to lose a friend, talk politics," said Staff Sgt. Brian Pawlovich, an F-16 maintenance crew chief for the 148th. "I believe in the cause."

They are here to support the mission, which is to provide air support and surveillance for the soldiers in the field, he said.

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"You have to keep it in perspective," he said. "These boys are going through some [expletive] out there."

Pawlovich also said he believes in the overall mission of bringing peace and stability to the country.

Tech. Sgt. Steve Lanthier, also on the plane support crew, said he loves to see the planes perform well, but it's a double-edged sword.

"It also means that someone is either dead or getting shot at," Lanthier said.

The last time they were here, in 2005, both men volunteered for "patriot duty," which involved preparing the bodies of the fallen for their final trips home.

"My view is that I'm here to do what I'm supposed to do," Lanthier said. "I save my opinions for home."

The 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing oversees the Air Force's operations at the base, which also includes about 20,000 Army soldiers. Air Force Col. Gary Renfrow is second in command.

"We are really here to help Iraq transition into a democracy," Renfrow said. "How we do it is by giving Americans air superiority right here right now. ... We think we're going to be here for a while.

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"I'm not going to get too wrapped up in domestic politics. We hope to make the world a better place, and then get out of here."

Tech. Sgt. Glen Flanagan said he would like to see the U.S. get out of Iraq as soon as possible. "But you can't just pick up and leave," Flanagan said. "It would be chaos."

It was just a couple of years ago that the Pentagon put the 148th on the chopping block, before a federal base closure commission changed its course. More recently, some 148th members grumbled about Democrats' efforts to cut funding for the war.

While the 148th has been stationed in Iraq, the Duluth City Council, including a former fighter wing member, passed a symbolic resolution asking the president and Congress to bring the troops home. They asked the federal government to seek diplomatic and economic solutions in Iraq.

Most Guard members at Balad, when asked, said they either didn't pay attention to the vote or didn't really care about it. Not everyone, though.

"It's something the city had no right doing," said Tech. Sgt. Sean O'Connor.

"What we need to be doing is speaking in one voice when dealing with other nations," said Master Sgt. Randy Vine, but noted that "we're here so people can have an opinion."

Master Sgt. Mark LaPlante found it offensive. He said a lot of the Guard members are in Iraq now so their children won't have to come back later.

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Not everyone in the 148th agrees with the Bush administration's wartime strategies.

"All I'm saying is that not everybody in the military takes a conservative viewpoint," said Tech. Sgt. Dusty Sicard of Winona, Minn.

Sicard said he still believes a plan can be formulated to bring peace and stability to the region.

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