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Troops celebrate holiday, await word on when they will come home

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Platoon Sgt. Don Henry of Aiken, S.C., rolled out of bed on Thanksgiving morning, looking forward to a rare day of rest, an inter-unit football game and a big turkey dinner. Beyond that, the 43-year-old veteran National Guardsman struggled to count his blessings in the spartan barracks of Forward Operating Base St. Mere.

Members of his unit, Charlie Company of the South Carolina National Guard's 122nd Engineer Battalion, had expected to return home in September after six months in Iraq. Now the soldiers are facing the holidays with no idea when they might rotate home. The best word right now is June.

"Give me a date to go home, then I can plan," said Henry, who has spent 25 years in the military, 10 on active duty. "I'm just as angry as my soldiers are. I don't know when we're going home."

About 600 soldiers in Baghdad whooped and hollered as they were treated to a surprise visit from President Bush as they dined on a traditional Thanksgiving dinner Thursday.

But there was no similar break from the drudgery of duty in Iraq for the 130,000 soldiers here—20 percent of whom are "weekend warriors" on deployments that now could last up to two years.

That number will rise next year. With President Bush's call for international troops going largely unheeded, the Pentagon plans would have nearly 40 percent of the 105,000 troops expected in Iraq to be part time soldiers including, for the first time, Marine reserves.

Most Guardsmen and reservists, who have full-time careers in civilian life, didn't plan for an extended deployment. The 122nd has been in existence for 45 years without an extended federal call up.

"We've got guys who make $50,000 or $60,000 a year who are getting half of that now," said Col. Brad Owens, commander of the 122nd. "There's a lot of gratification serving your country. At some point they'll look back and see we played a significant role in bringing stability to this country. But it's tough."

Maximum pay requirements for employers run out after six months. Providing insurance becomes complicated with an extended deployment. And those soldiers who are self-employed find their businesses suffer or stall.

"These guys do all the work around here," said 82nd Airborne Division spokesman Sgt. Rodrick Stallings, of Indianapolis, Ind., himself a reservist. "This is like running to the finish line in a race, then somebody moves the mark."

To date, the 122nd has conducted more than 360 combat projects throughout western Iraq and has been involved in 400 civilian construction projects, totaling $33 million dollars. About $8 million went to Iraqi subcontractors.

Some members of the 122nd are now building fortifications for tanks and bridging rivers as part of the 82nd's Operation Rifle Blitz, a major offensive aimed at rounding up insurgent fighters and terrorists in western Iraq.

Sgt. Henry's platoon of 25 South Carolina Guardsmen has had eight soldiers wounded in three roadside bomb attacks on their convoys—the total casualties for the whole 106-man Charlie Company and more than half of the casualties in 500-man 122nd Battalion.

"The stress level is just so high," said Henry, an Aiken County sheriff's deputy. "Every time you go under an overpass you just brace yourself for the blast. It's bad enough that you have to be away for the holidays, but you also have people trying to blow you up."

Chaplains conducting Thanksgiving services on Thursday said the citizen soldiers often have more problems coping than regular troops.

"Active duty personnel know they are going to be real soldiers," said Father Marion Piekarczyk, a Catholic priest and a reservist from San Antonio. "Some (of the Guard and reservists) are not ready. We keep an eye on them."

Holidays make the homesickness and stress worse, he said. Not knowing when they might return to their families compounds the problems.

Chaplains stress the importance of the work the men and women are doing.

"They made a vow not just to the government, but to God to do their duty," said Maj. Scott Carson, a Baptist chaplain from Mission, Texas, who delivered the sermon at Thursday's service, held in a looted auditorium at the base, a former Iraqi military installation.

To lower the stress and relieve the boredom members of the 122nd relax with music, DVDs, exercise and sports. Many soldiers have laptops and write e-mails prodigiously. A new Internet center just opened on Thursday for those without a computer. It was packed most of the day.

An engineering unit from Mississippi built a golf driving range using an imported tee box and camouflage netting. They are working on a whiffle ball field.

Thursday, the diversions included turkey, ham and a mountain of shrimp all served in the camp's new, prefabricated chow hall. Non-coms dished out the dinner to their soldiers, a tradition in the military. There was college basketball on the big screen TV.

Out in the helicopter landing zone—a muddy field laced with rocks—units squared off in torrid games of flag football: Medics against MPs, engineers versus grunts.

But for members of the 122nd Engineering Battalion, the ultimate stress relief will be an exit date.

"We'll go home when the Army says go home," said 1st Sgt. Bill Bryant, of Aiken, S.C. "But we feel like we signed up for a 10-K run and ended up in a marathon."


(Wilkinson reports for The State in Columbia, S.C.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-TROOPS