Guard to come home

After 22 months away from home and 16 months in Iraq, the homecoming is in sight for 2,600 Minnesotans serving with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.

After 22 months away from home and 16 months in Iraq, the homecoming is in sight for 2,600 Minnesotans serving with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.

Some members of the combat team already have left Iraq, and all of the troops are expected back in the U.S. by early August, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Adjutant Gen. Larry Shellito said at a Capitol news conference.

Because of logistical challenges, the brigade will return in groups. One 75-member unit -- the Grand Rapids-based 136th Infantry, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, C Company -- arrived Monday at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, where all troops will undergo eight days of demobilization before returning to their hometowns.

The troops have been authorized to give their relatives a general idea of when they plan to be home, Shellito said, and hometowns will know of their return at least two days in advance.

"It's an unbelievable sense of absolute joy and panic and excitement. It's a whole whirlwind," said Katie Robinson of Duluth, whose husband, Sgt. Chad Robinson, is one of about 150 Duluth-area residents serving in Iraq with the unit.


The couple married in September 2005, just as the unit was called up.

"We only got two days together to be a married couple, then the two weeks of R and R" a year later, Katie Robinson said. "Chad has been a dad for almost two years now, but he's only gotten about 19 days with his daughter. So he gets to learn to be a daddy and I get to learn to how to share Kaisa."

Although she's ready to have her husband home, Robinson is trying not to get her hopes up just yet. The unit was supposed to be home already. Then in March, its tour was extended 125 days as part of President Bush's troop surge in Iraq.

"After that, you wait until they come in the door," said Lisa Greene of Duluth, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Jerome Greene, is stationed in Baghdad.

The Greenes last saw each other Nov 14, when Jerome was home for two weeks.

"He came for our 10th anniversary," Lisa Greene said. "That was a special moment. And he came home for our daughter's 18th birthday."

The separation has been difficult, especially on the couple's four children, particular on the youngest, Jeremiah, 6.

"When Jerry came home for R and R last year, he didn't remember who his daddy was because they were gone so long," Lisa Greene said. "This is a long deployment."


The 2,600 Guard members were mobilized for training in October 2005 and left for Iraq in March 2006.

"This is the longest deployment of any military unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom," Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard, said in a news release.

Families have kept in touch with varying degrees of success. The Robinsons talked regularly, but communications are iffy where Jerome Greene is stationed. E-mail and phone lines would die in the middle of a conversation, and it could be days before the Greenes heard more.

"When they don't hear from their dad for a while, they've asked me if he's been killed," Lisa Greene said of their children. "For that to weigh on little kids, that's a struggle."

But following the news from Iraq could be difficult as well.

"I quit watching the world news a long time ago," Lisa Greene said.

The unease is common. Carol Schlenvogt of Cloquet has had two sons who servein Iraq. One, Tim, is still there with theRed Bulls.

"It's always kind of a worry," she said. "I only listened to so much news, just kind of stayed focused and kept them in my prayers."


Greene credits family, friends and local Guard members with helping her deal with being a single parent while her husband has been gone.

"Our local armory guys really help the families," she said. "They dug me out after the last couple of blizzards because I couldn't even get out of the house."

The Minnesota National Guard also prepares families to help their loved ones make the sometimes difficult transition back to life as civilians.

"There's not enough I can do to support my husband," Greene said. "You send the care packages, you listen to him, but you don't really know what's going to happen until you meet up with him and start turning back into a family. Two years apart is a long time."

When the soldiers return home, they will encounter improved reintegration efforts. Pawlenty, a Republican, and the DFL-led Legislature agreed this year to increase spending on programs serving active-duty soldiers and military veterans.

Greene hopes the community and the media gives the returning soldiers the homecoming she feels they've earned.

"These guys deserve the best when they get home, because they have been gone the longest," she said. "They have sacrificed so much. My husband has missed two years of our children's lives. He missed our daughter's graduation. He's going to miss our 16-year-old getting his license."

STEVE KUCHERA can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5503 or by e-mail at Wente of the State Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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