Originally created 11/29/03

South Carolina National Guard unit waits to go home

COLUMBIA - When members of Sgt. Don Henry's unit deployed to Iraq eight months ago, they expected to be back home in South Carolina by September, yet they spent Thanksgiving Day with no idea when they could return.

The best word the 43-year-old veteran National Guardsman has for them right now is June.

"Give me a date to go home, then I can plan," said Sgt. Henry, of Aiken, who has spent 25 years in the military, 10 on active duty. "I'm just as angry as my soldiers are. I don't know when we're going home."

Members of his unit, Charlie Company of the South Carolina National Guard's 122nd Engineer Battalion, have been in Iraq repairing schools, building soccer fields, improving military bases and destroying seized ordnance.

The soldiers don't complain about the work. It's the financial concerns that keep them awake at night.

They are citizen soldiers, many of them giving up well-paying jobs to serve their country. Most are older, with families and established careers. Most guardsmen and reservists didn't plan for an extended deployment.

The average age in Sgt. Henry's unit is 33, while the average age of an active-duty soldier is in the early 20s.

"We've got guys who make $50,000 or $60,000 a year who are getting half of that now," said Col. Brad Owens, the commander of the 122nd. "At some point, they'll look back and see we played a significant role in bringing stability to this country. But it's tough."

Maximum pay requirements for employers run out after six months. Soldiers who are self-employed find that their businesses suffer or stall. Providing insurance becomes complicated with an extended deployment.

"We'll go home when the Army says go home," said 1st Sgt. Bill Bryant, of Aiken. "But we feel like we signed up for a 10-K run and ended up in a marathon."

About 20 percent of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are "weekend warriors" on deployments that could last as long as two years.

That number will rise next year.

With President Bush's call for international troops going largely unheeded, the Pentagon plans for a larger call-up to replace the troops now on the ground in Iraq.

Nearly 40 percent of the 105,000 troops in the new force will be part-time soldiers including, for the first time, Marine reserves.

In the guerrilla war raging around Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle west and north of the capital, where the 122nd is based, no military position is safe.

Sgt. Henry's platoon of 25 South Carolina Guardsmen has had eight soldiers wounded in three roadside bomb attacks on their convoys - the total casualties for the whole 106-troop Charlie Company and more than half of the casualties in the 500-troop 122nd Battalion.

"The stress level is just so high," said Sgt. Henry, an Aiken County sheriff's deputy.

"Every time you go under an overpass you just brace yourself for the blast. It's bad enough that you have to be away for the holidays, but you also have people trying to blow you up."


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