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Alaska's 172nd Stryker Brigade was scheduled to come home from Iraq in the next weeks. Now, it seems they will stay in that country for as much as four more months. The troops are based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, where member station KUAC - Libby Casey reports on how this news is being received at the base.
LIBBY CASEY reporting:
Fort Wainwright's fences are lined with scores of signs waiting to welcome soldiers home. The red, white and blue homemade posters are written personally to Daddy, Mommy, My Soldier, and My Hero. Now the signs will have to weather the change of seasons as families wait longer for their soldiers to come home.
Colonel Michael Shields spoke with reporters via video feed from Mosul, Iraq. He couldn't give many details about the extended deployment, but said it is happening.
Colonel MICHAEL SHIELDS (Commander, 172nd Stryker Brigade): I'm not at liberty to discuss the location of the brigade and what it will be doing. The brigade will fighting together and will be continuing to conduct the type of operations that you witnessed when you visit counter insurgency operations to neutralize terrorist threats, and to provide for the stability and security of the people.
CASEY: What that means is unclear. The unit may have to go to Baghdad where President Bush says more forces are needed to help stem violence; that's considered to be a more dangerous assignment. Colonel Shields broke the news Wednesday night to leaders of the rear detachment who've been working to prepare Fort Wainwright for the big homecoming and to the spouses of top military officers, they had to make the calls to soldiers' families.
Army Alaska commander, Major General Charles Jacoby, says as hard as this is it's a testament to the skill of the Stryker Brigade. They're wanted in Iraq because of the experience they've gained over the past year.
Major General CHARLES JACOBY (U.S. Army, Alaska): We know that it comes as a disappointment and there are hardships that are going to be endured, but this was the right organization for a tough mission that our country needed done. And this brigade, and these families, and this team, and this community, are prepared to get it done.
CASEY: Some of the Stryker Brigade's soldier's who've just come home from Iraq in the past few weeks may have to go back. It's unknown yet who could be tapped and when they would have to go.
Rear detachment commander, Lieutenant Colonel Greg Parrish(ph), says it's difficult to explain how hard this will be for the soldiers who aren't chosen to go back. The ones who stay here will be constantly thinking of the troops in Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel GREG PARRISH (Commander, Rear Detachment): It was a bit of shock and a disappointment from every unit today. Of the 378 of us that are staying in - on the ground in Fort Wainwright, we're all ready to go back tomorrow. That's our team. That's our family. We've trained with them. We've lived with them. There's been a bond formed. It's hard to describe but it's family, and so they're still there and we're not. And so that's kind of the hard part.
CASEY: Army Alaska officials say, ultimately, this will be toughest for the spouses, kids, and parents of the soldiers deployed. Colonel Robert Ball says Army Alaska will do all it can to help ease the burden on wives with children who are counting down the days - literally - for their husbands to come home.
Colonel ROBERT BALL (U.S. Army Alaska): I mean, these ladies have been doing this for a year. They were sort of in the last lap. They knew they were coming up, and now that's been pulled out. We're all human beings. You can be professional and say yes, I understand it, but at the same time, I need a break.
CASEY: Ball says Army Alaska is working to get parents more childcare options. They're also helping families figure out what happens next for each of them. Many were scheduled to move out of Alaska as soon as their soldiers came home. Ball says he knows of some women who had moving vans already scheduled for the end of this week. Now, for them and the families of 3800 other soldiers, everything is up in the air.
For NPR News, I'm Libby Casey in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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