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Guard Unit Is Resigned to Prolonged Duty in Iraq

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Guard Unit Is Resigned to Prolonged Duty in Iraq

Iraq

Guard Unit Is Resigned to Prolonged Duty in Iraq

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It used to be that National Guardsmen were known as weekend warriors. These days, perhaps if it's like the Minnesota Guard, it's more like two-year warriors. Charlie Company of the 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry has 72 Minnesotans who just learned that they are going to be in Iraq for another four months. They were getting ready to leave in March.

NPR's John McChesney spent four days with Charlie Company and he has this report?

JOHN McCHESNEY: Charlie Company is responsible for part of the security at the vast supply base called Anaconda 50 miles north of Baghdad. They escort truck convoys on IED-infested highways and they patrol the roads and villages that ring the base. Escorts and patrols can be dangerous, but so far the company hasn't lost anybody. Lieutenant Eric Nelson describes the purpose of the patrol we're about to take outside the base.

Lieutenant ERIC NELSON (Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry): You get a feel for what the people are thinking, possibly collect some intelligence, and get some information on local insurgencies around the operator on the base.

McCHESNEY: Pointing out that the Humvee's turret, he says he doesn't anticipate any hostile fire.

Lieutenant NELSON: And they see we have this big weapon, .50 caliber machine gun, and they see that. And it's obviously they scared of it. They don't see the insurgents rolling around with this type of weaponry. And like I said, they're not looking to - for a full-on confrontation.

McCHESNEY: But just in case someone does decide to confront the convoy, each Humvee test fires its weapons as we leave the base.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

McCHESNEY: The six Humvee convoy rattles over bone jarring rutted roads past canals, hurdles of flocks and small farms. We stopped at one farm and dismount. Six soldiers walk up the driveway toward a young farmer waiting there. He's dressed in a black vest with green embroidery. He's smiling as two intelligence officers and an interpreter question him. We're not allowed to record the interview, but we did talk to him afterwards.

What kind of things did they ask you about?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) He talked to us about safety and that they want to help us. They want to build schools, and help us with a lot of projects.

McCHESNEY: They didn't ask if anybody saw anything suspicious?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) We would like to help if we see anything against us. We want to help the coalition forces, of course.

McCHESNEY: That brought more smiles, because we knew that there had also been discussion of a suspicious white pickup truck, and that if he saw it again, would he please call the base. He'd been given a card with phone numbers. Insurgents launched mortar attacks on Anaconda from out here, giving the base its nickname of Mortaritaville. As we walk back, I asked Lieutenant Peter Rampart what he thought about being extended for four months.

Lieutenant PETER RAMPART (Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry): Yeah, it wasn't what we are hoping for, but it was part of the job. So I let my family know before we even started that it's always a possibility. They were little upset, but it's only four months. So we just get to enjoy another Iraqi summer, so.

McCHESNEY: That kind of stoic acceptance wasn't uncommon amongst the soldiers I interviewed including Lieutenant Nelson, the patrol commander. But he adds that something else is on everyone's minds.

Lieutenant NELSON: When we heard of the extension, obviously, they're already thinking about, well, what if something happens in that time that we're going to be extended, obviously, would be a little more tragic because otherwise you would have been home by that time.

McCHESNEY: And disappointment runs deep amongst some soldiers who have children, like Sergeant 1st Class Michael Gerard from Cloquet, Minnesota.

Sergeant MICHAEL GERALD (Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry): My son, it's difficult, you know, of being - missing yet another baseball season and another football season. And for him he's, you know, he's feeling the effects, you know, even we see performance in school even affected by me being gone.

McCHESNEY: Many of the younger soldiers joined the Guard to help pay for their education. But Specialist Michael Fostner(ph) is doubtful about when he can finish.

Specialist MICHAEL FOSTNER (Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry): I know we're not going to be home long before we are back again, back here Iran, Afghanistan, wherever. Trying to go to school, that's really hard. You know, he goes to school for a year then you got to miss two, then you have to try to pick up where you left off, and it's tough.

McCHESNEY: Yesterday, one of the extended Minnesotans got to ask a question when NPR's Juan Williams interviewed with President Bush. Specialist Ryan Schmidt asked if the president had a plan if his troop surge didn't work. Here's what the president said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I would say to Ryan, I put it in place on the advice of a lot of smart people, particularly the military people who thinks it will work. And let us go into this aspect of the Iraqi strategy feeling it will work. But I will also assure Ryan that we're constantly adjusting to conditions on the ground.

McCHESNEY: We asked Specialist Schmidt if he was satisfied with the president's answer.

Specialist RYAN SCHMIDT (Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry): No, it did not answer my question. I would have like to know more so that there will be a plan if this does not work. For some of us that are over here, particularly me, my unit, we all feel that why, what's the point of us being extended if your initial plan to send more troops over here does not work? What are you going to do, Mr. President?

McCHESNEY: John McChesney, NPR News, Anaconda, Iraq.

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