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For families, the wait gets longer

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Christmas will come in March for Ann Rieger and her four daughters.

The family had already put off the event until January, but now they’ll have to wait until early spring.

“I already told the kids we’re not having Christmas until Dad comes home,” Rieger said.

The Riegers are among the families waiting for members of the 66th Transportation Company to return to Germany after the unit’s yearlong deployment to Iraq. But Army officials announced Wednesday that those 156 soldiers are among thousands of troops being extended downrange for 60 days to bolster U.S. forces for Iraq’s Jan. 30 elections. The 66th is the only Europe-based unit to be extended.

Family members were told of the extension Wednesday at a meeting at Kleber Casern. Under the DOD plan, the unit will spend 33 of those 60 days at its current location, Forward Operating Base Speicher, north of Baghdad.

“They’re saying on the 5th of March, they’ll start convoying down to [Kuwait], and then they think it could take up to two weeks,” to process out of the staging area, Col. Susan Sowers, commander of the 37th Transportation Command, told about 15 wives and several children at Wednesday’s meeting.

“In my mind, it looks like the third week in March, we could start to see our folks coming home,” she said.

While the news visibly shook some, many said they were prepared for the extension after hearing about it from their husbands.

“It’s hard news, but they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do,” said Marlene Sanchez, whose husband, Spc. Edward Sanchez, is a truck driver. Sanchez said she spoke with her husband Tuesday, when he warned her of the possible extension.

Others took the news harder.

“I was so upset I was shaking,” said Ulrike Reinhardt, a mother of three whose husband is Sgt. Philip Brown. She said the delay of her husband’s unit — which suffered two deaths in an attack in August and has had 11 troops wounded — also means an extension of her apprehension.

“It’s more days on the road, more targets for bombs,” Reinhardt said. “More days of anxiety for me.”

Army officials had a dozen support personnel on hand Wednesday to offer legal, logistical and emotional assistance to family members. Questions from the spouses generally revolved around paperwork, payment and power of attorney details associated with the delay.

One detail that irked family members about the extension is that it does not start until Jan. 31, 2005 — a week after the company’s one-year anniversary at Forward Operating Base Speicher.

“What they’re doing now, they’re saying, ‘You came in January, the end of January is your time,’” Sowers said. “They would say the one year mark is 31 January, that’s the math that they’re using downrange.”

Sowers said that pushing the extension’s start date past the one-year mark is a move by the Army to get a few extra days out of an experienced unit.

“They’re trying to take some days where they can get some,” she said.

No matter how long it takes for the 66th to come home, however, Rieger said her children are all right with waiting for Christmas if it means they can celebrate it with their father.

“They know how important it is to have that,” she said.


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