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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
US National Guard bears Iraq burden
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Petersburg, Virginia

Virginia National Guard members receive medals
Soldiers and their families are given a welcome home ceremony
While the Democrats and Bush administration spar over the war spending bill, there are thousands of US families for whom it is about much more than politics.

Bound up with the question of funding for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is the issue of how many troops are deployed overseas and for how long.

Some of those most concerned are in the National Guard, the "citizen soldiers" who commit to military training on weekends and for a month a year while keeping their civilian jobs.

In the past, they have mostly been deployed to deal with civil emergencies or natural disasters.

But since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 all that has changed, with most having completed at least one tour of duty in Iraq.

While the National Guard is not affected by Defence Secretary Robert Gates' decision to extend regular army deployments to 15 months, many face quicker re-deployment than expected.

Often older than active-duty servicemen, many National Guard troops have children and have to cope with slotting back into a full-time job on their return from the battlefield.

Back to Iraq

More than 100 such soldiers gathered in Petersburg, Virginia, last week for a Freedom Salute Ceremony, one of many such events being held nationwide to recognise the efforts of National Guard soldiers and their families.

The Morton family goes up to receive medal and gifts
Sgt Morton has volunteered to return to Iraq after four months

Sergeant 1st Class Thomas Morton, from Richmond, Virginia, came home to his wife and five children in January after almost 15 months away.

Since his return from Iraq, the 35-year-old has gone back to his regular job loading trucks.

He would normally have had at least a year between postings but instead has volunteered to go back to Iraq in May or June, when the new National Guard unit to which he has been transferred is deployed.

"They didn't have any senior leadership with a lot of experience," he said.

"The unit I'm going with will all be my troops. I didn't want to say 'see you in a year'."

His wife Whitney admits it is difficult running the household on her own and working full time but says she supports her husband "110%".

Her own childhood in Cambodia has shown her how important it is that peace and stability are brought to Iraq, she says.

Job fears

Capt Lowell Nevill commanded Virginia's National Guard troops in Iraq as the 654th Military Police Company, a unit specially formed to train Iraqi police officers and protect top government officials.

Captain Lowell Nevill
Capt Nevill says some guardsmen may find it harder to get jobs

He points out that only three or four of the 157 soldiers in the company opted not to re-enlist while they were deployed in Baghdad and Ramadi. Ten decided to sign up for active duty.

But, he adds, he fears some younger National Guard troops are volunteering to return early to Iraq because it is becoming harder to start careers while signed up.

While most employers are understanding, some - particularly smaller firms - find it hard to cover for troops on long deployments and so are reluctant to take them on, he says.

Keeping the servicemen's families on board with ceremonies such as the Freedom Salute is obviously an important part of maintaining troop morale.

The US defence department is adding a financial incentive by offering more and bigger bonuses to those who re-enlist.

'Heavy toll'

Renee Harris's husband, a combat engineer in the Virginia National Guard, has been sent to Iraq twice in as many years.

She says the biggest challenge is staying upbeat for their three children.

As a spouse, I think there's only so much a human can endure, whether it's active duty or National Guard
Renee Harris

"The youngest one was five the first time he deployed, so he didn't have a lot of questions, but he's got a year-and-a-half older now so he's asking 'what happens if something happens to Daddy and he doesn't come back'."

And while Mrs Harris, from Virginia Beach, has resolved to support her husband, backing his decision to re-enlist was not easy.

"As a spouse, I think there's only so much a human can endure, whether it's active duty or National Guard.

"A 12-15 month deployment is a long time away from home, and it takes its toll not just on the servicemen overseas but on the home too."

(l-r) Angeline Butterman and Brad, Chris and Jessica Fisher
Twins Brad and Chris Fisher were posted together to Iraq

When 26-year-old twins Brad and Chris Fisher were posted together to Iraq last year, it meant half their tiny family was in a war zone.

"It brings a whole new meaning to having all your eggs in one basket," says older sister Angeline Butterman. "I'm just glad they're home."

For Chris's wife, Jessica, the deployment meant saying goodbye to her husband for a year, less than a month after their wedding.

"As you can imagine, that was pretty difficult. You have to adjust to being married without having your husband there day to day."

So what motivates National Guard members to sign up and re-enlist despite the obvious dangers?

Sgt Todd Boyer
Sgt Todd Boyer finds a sense of pride in his work with the corps

Sergeant Todd Boyer, 38 and married with three children, says: "It's hard to explain - it's a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment.

"It's hard going back to a civilian job but you have a sense of accomplishment to put towards that."

His wife, Brenda, supports him because "he's doing it for his country, it's what you have to do" but says she worries about his safety every day that he is away.

With the news that some 13,000 National Guard troops from Ohio, Arkansas, Indiana and Oklahoma are likely to be deployed in 2008 or before, many more families may soon face a similar test.

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