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Military families must reset clock

Mental countdowns and reunion plans have to be changed with the new timetable. Some are angry, others stoic.

January 12, 2007|Stephanie Simon and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

Sgt. Scott Peer woke his wife, Sara, last week with a call in the middle of the night. He'd been stoic throughout his nine months in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard. This call was different.

I'm homesick, he told her. I miss you and the kids.

She reassured him: Just a few more months. We'll see you soon.

And Sara Peer let herself believe it.

But late Wednesday, she learned that her husband would not be home in March as planned. The "Red Bulls" -- 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry Division -- will remain in Iraq as part of a military buildup ordered by President Bush. Their mission could stretch into July.

"I'm so angry at myself for letting my guard down," Sara Peer said. "With the military, nothing's definite until it happens."

Across Iraq and across America, troops and their families adjusted Thursday to the new timetables and changing missions -- some with optimism, some with anger.

At the wind-swept outpost of Al Qaim, Iraq, near the Syrian border, Marine Sgt. Ryan Armstrong of Iowa made the best of a two- to three-month extension by toting up the extra combat pay he'll earn. "This is going to put several thousand bucks in my pocket," said Armstrong, 25.

At Ft. Bragg, N.C., members of the 82nd Airborne prepared to ship out within days -- though they had not expected to be back in the war zone at all this year. At Ft. Benning, Ga., soldiers and their families met with Bush about their orders to deploy more quickly than planned.

In Cannon Falls, Minn., Sara Peer canceled the workshop she had arranged for National Guard spouses this weekend. It was to have been about helping soldiers readjust to civilian lives when they come home. "No one will want to hear that now," Peer said. "I've asked the chaplain to come be with us instead."

The 2,600 Minnesota troops with the National Guard's Red Bulls have been on active duty since early October 2005. They left their civilian lives -- driving trucks, changing diapers, studying for a master's degree -- for training in Mississippi. In March 2006, they flew to Iraq.

The troops have since been split up and assigned to Army combat units throughout the country. Their new orders have extended their missions for up to 125 days, or nearly 18 weeks.

That means Capt. Joshua Simer, 31, will not make it back to St. Paul in time to see his daughter, Amy, gobble her first birthday cake in May. He missed her birth as well, and her first smile. Simer was home on leave for two weeks in November. But Amy knows her daddy mostly from his photos -- laminated so she can drool all over them -- and from the videotape he made of himself singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider."

"The big thing that's getting me through this is thinking that if he stays another four months, maybe he'll be a lot less likely to be deployed again in a few years," said his wife, Kelly Simer, 29.

She had tried to brace herself for an extension, but her husband had not: "He had been assuring me he had no more than 100 days left to go," Simer said. Others in Joshua Simer's brigade had also been counting down. Many viewed Christmas as a turning point, a milestone that gave them license to begin planning their homecoming after months of trying not to look that far ahead.

"I have my eye on the finish line," Spc. Lance S. Buckley wrote on his blog in mid-December. He was depressed, he wrote, about spending the holidays without his family, but added, "My mind is almost home now."

Under Bush's plan, the Minnesota National Guard drew the longest extension of any combat team in Iraq. Many soldiers heard the news first not from their commanders, but from their relatives, who received an e-mail alert on Wednesday evening, a few hours after Bush discussed the buildup in a speech to the nation.

As the news spread Thursday, Sgt. Nick Bope wrote in his blog, "You can feel the misery that the soldiers are feeling.... They have to try and console their families and themselves at the same time, a quite difficult task."

As for himself, Bope wrote, he has tried to adopt the motto "semper Gumby -- always flexible."

"That is more true than ever today," he wrote. "You just can't make this stuff up."

The Minnesota National Guard has lost 10 soldiers in Iraq, including three in the last six weeks. Just under the news of the extended deployment, the Guard's website features a photo of Sgt. James M. Wosika Jr., 24, who was killed by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol in Fallujah on Tuesday.

"I am extremely disappointed and frustrated" by the extended mission, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. He called the decision "unfair" to soldiers and their families.

The commander of the Minnesota National Guard, Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, also expressed disappointment -- and said he could not promise that this would be the last extension, or that his troops would get a long respite upon their return. Traditionally, Guard units have been mobilized no more than one year in six, but the Pentagon said Thursday that some troops would be called up more frequently.

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