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Louisiana National Guard soldiers return home from Iraq

WASHINGTON—National Guard troops with Louisiana's 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team who lost loved ones or homes in Hurricane Katrina are beginning to arrive home from Iraq after a year of duty.

Brigade commander Brig. Gen. John P. Basilica Jr. said Friday that the more than 500 soldiers who'd sustained losses in the storm would be sent home first. Some 200 already have returned to Louisiana, and the rest should return home by Saturday night.

"Some will require more services than others," Basilica said, speaking by video link from Baghdad. "Either way, we will come up with a plan and come up with the support that they need to help them get their lives back together."

Basilica said soldiers who'd volunteered for hurricane relief work would be sent home next. The rest of the 2,500-person brigade is scheduled to return to Louisiana between Sept. 20 and Sept. 23.

Basilica said returning troops would be given the choice of remaining on state active duty or returning to their civilian lives. About 800 have expressed interest in serving in some capacity when they return, the general said. Another 1,500 have said they plan to return to their civilian lives and the rest remain undecided, he said.

Those who stay on active duty will serve for a year under the direction of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and will receive all the rights and privileges of active-duty troops, said Lt. Col. Pam Hart, an Army spokeswoman.

Basilica said the Army and the Pentagon had promised that returning troops who'd lost their homes would be eligible for federal housing and other benefits.

Lt. Col. Carl Ey, an Army spokesman, said troops who'd lost homes in the storm would be offered housing at Fort Polk, in central Louisiana, until they could rebuild.

The 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team has been serving in Iraq for the past year and has just completed its deployment.

About 3,000 troops with the Mississippi National Guard's 155th Armored Brigade Task Force also are serving in Iraq. They're scheduled to return early next year, but 80 of them have been granted emergency leave because of losses in the storm.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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