After 22 months in Iraq, ‘home’ is a state of mind for Minnesota Guard unit
June 6, 2007
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — As Pfc. Andrew Waldron would say — or, rather, as he would sing — it’s “The Final Countdown.”
Waldron, 26, of Richfield, Minn., has sung the song by the Swedish band Europe to amuse and annoy his friends on every patrol they’ve done in the farmlands on the western edge of Baghdad. As of the end of April, that was 425 patrols and counting.
Waldron and the soldiers with Outlaw Platoon, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 136th Minnesota National Guard are nearing the end of a 22-month deployment. From six months of training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi to an extended 15-month tour in Iraq, they’ve been away from home since October 2005. They are supposed to head home late this summer.
Overall, the Minnesota National Guard has been deployed to Iraq longer than any other military unit — active, Guard or Reserves, The New York Times reported last month.
“If you’re going to be here a long time, you might as well be here the longest,” said 1st Lt. Stewart Whitson, 26, of Minneapolis, the platoon’s commander.
They’ve been away so long that life in Iraq and at Camp Liberty has become home, the only routine they can remember. Their normalcy is war: patrolling through muck and sweat, working unending weeks, watching newly deployed soldiers get lost in the chow hall. Their commanding unit has switched three times during their stint in Iraq. Other soldiers have come and gone, and the Outlaws are still here.
As their time ends, they face a mission just as complicated — going home.
“You don’t really miss home anymore,” said Spc. Christopher Timp, 21, of Freeport, Minn. “It’s just second nature to be here. I don’t know how I could go back to how I lived.”
As a unit, they have been back to Minnesota only once — two weeks at Christmas in 2005. Before deploying in March 2006, they got a four-day pass. Since then, they’ve each taken their two weeks’ leave from Iraq. All that happened months ago, well before the Army extended deployments to 15 months.
“To think of home, you have to think of 2005,” said Spc. Brandon Pajari, 21, of Alexandria, Minn.
Some have to think of 2003, when the platoon was called up for a year to serve in Kosovo. That stretch should have given them a reprieve from this Iraq deployment. But many in the Guard, a group whose hometowns and memories weave together outside of war, refused to stay behind.
“It’s hard to sit at home and watch everybody else come over here,” said Sgt. Aaron Rousselange, 22, of Long Prairie, Minn., who served in Kosovo and has been gone from home the past three out of four years.
“You’d feel like a [expletive]-bag if you were sitting at home playing PlayStation and somebody over here got killed," he said.
In Iraq, the platoon has been lucky. They haven’t lost a member in their time in Baghdad.
They’ve been lucky in friendships as well. They know each other well enough to tell the difference between side-splitting laughter and nervous laughter, the kind that comes uncontrollably when being shot at. They’ve helped each other with problems back home. They’ve become so close, their friends from before the war feel like strangers.
But the long time away from home has hurt as well. The younger members haven’t been able to schedule adulthood — careers, jobs, college, drinking legally — around the drawn-out deployments. They’ve missed weddings and other celebrations scheduled before the 12 months in Iraq grew to 15. Some have lost girlfriends, and a handful of them, wives. Some have remained frustratingly single.
These challenges aren’t unique to the Outlaws when compared with other Army units, who were also extended to 15-month tours in April. But there’s a huge difference between 15 months and 22 months, the platoon members say.
“I can look around and know that I’ve been here longer than almost anyone here,” said Rousselange as he ate dinner at Camp Liberty’s massive chow hall last week.
Longevity has some advantages, the soldiers say. They’ve gotten to know every family and farmhouse in the area they patrol. The locals — a mix of Sunni and Shiites separated more by tribal loyalty than religious conviction — know them, too, and have grown more willing to help coalition forces.
That closeness also can make the job harder, Whitson says. “Once you get over that year mark, you get too attached to an area,” he said. When an area sheik was killed in recent months, “it stops being an Iraqi who died. It’s your friend.”
He also said it’s easy to lose perspective, to side with the residents in their patrol area without questioning their motives. “You’ve got to force yourself to see both sides of the story,” he said.
As the end approaches, the Outlaws are worried about fitting back into what others consider normal life — weekends off, living at home, driving normal cars on normal roads. Relationships, especially, are tricky. Couples have been living together through phone lines and Internet connections for nearly two years.
Rousselange and his girlfriend are making it through the long deployment. So are Whitson and his wife, married just 2½ years. They are both nervous and excited about the upcoming reunions.
“It’s like going on a first date with your wife,” Whitson said. “It’s exciting.”
“If somebody waits for you two years — two years! — and you don’t go home and marry her …” Rousselange said, just shaking his head and not finishing his sentence.
But patience only goes so far.
“Most of us volunteered,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Larson, 34, of Burnsville, Minn. “But if they ask us again, a year from now, most of us’ll say no.”
Government help only goes so far as well. Twenty-two months is a long time, but it’s not long enough to qualify for 100 percent benefits from the GI Bill.
When they get home and finally start their college years, the military will only pay 80 percent, soldiers said.