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Sgt. 1st Class Yolanda Mendez, right, talks with Pfc. Tydesha Bailey, both of the 50th Main Support Battalion at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. Mendez spent 25 years in the New Jersey Army National Guard and recently bought a house in Florida for her retirement. But the 55-year-old was kept from retiring through stop loss and instead was deployed to Iraq for a one-year tour.

Sgt. 1st Class Yolanda Mendez, right, talks with Pfc. Tydesha Bailey, both of the 50th Main Support Battalion at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. Mendez spent 25 years in the New Jersey Army National Guard and recently bought a house in Florida for her retirement. But the 55-year-old was kept from retiring through stop loss and instead was deployed to Iraq for a one-year tour. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

Sgt. 1st Class Yolanda Mendez, right, talks with Pfc. Tydesha Bailey, both of the 50th Main Support Battalion at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. Mendez spent 25 years in the New Jersey Army National Guard and recently bought a house in Florida for her retirement. But the 55-year-old was kept from retiring through stop loss and instead was deployed to Iraq for a one-year tour.

Sgt. 1st Class Yolanda Mendez, right, talks with Pfc. Tydesha Bailey, both of the 50th Main Support Battalion at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. Mendez spent 25 years in the New Jersey Army National Guard and recently bought a house in Florida for her retirement. But the 55-year-old was kept from retiring through stop loss and instead was deployed to Iraq for a one-year tour. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

Sgt. 1st Class Scott Wombacher, left, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Rempe, both 45 years old, of the 50th Main Support Battalion at Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, have a combined 52 years of service in the Army National Guard.

Sgt. 1st Class Scott Wombacher, left, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Rempe, both 45 years old, of the 50th Main Support Battalion at Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, have a combined 52 years of service in the Army National Guard. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Most do not wear camouflage for a living. But they’re not inexperienced.

“That’s what makes the Guard unique,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Hawkins. “You’ve got a pool to draw from. We’ve got mechanics, engineers, plumbers, cops, construction workers.”

Most of the 42nd Infantry Division’s Task Force Liberty are not full-time soldiers, but rather members of the Army National Guard or Army Reserve. In February, the 42nd ID took responsibility for control of north-central Iraq from the the 1st Infantry Division, which had served there for a year. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto, has overall command of activities and of active-duty units deployed to the area.

The guardsmen and reservists say they’ve got what it takes to make progress in a country where 8 million people voted on Jan. 30 but attacks by insurgents continue to test the resolve of the new Iraq.

“There is irreversible momentum; this isn’t going backward,” Taluto said in a February interview with Stars and Stripes.

“There is a small percentage of people who make life miserable for a lot of people. The only way to stop them is to kill them. There’s no other way about it. They are hard-line extremists and are not going to give up their cause.”

The citizen soldiers might be the perfect fit for the current stage of the U.S. occupation. Two years after toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, the goals for Task Force Liberty are decidedly grass-roots: tamping down a stubborn insurgency while training Iraqi soldiers and police to do the job themselves; molding dysfunctional local governments into responsive and productive entities; and enabling elections scheduled for October (to ratify the new Iraqi constitution) and December (to choose a national congress).

The guardsmen and reservists, who make up 13,000 of the 23,000 soldiers in Task Force Liberty, bring diplomatic and other real-life skills to the game.

“Back in the ’90s, it would have been an issue,” said Maj. Teresa Wolfgang, a reservist and company commander with the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team. “The first Gulf war changed that. A lot of the reservists and guards here have prior active duty. We now have a smaller active-duty force, especially in my field — civil affairs. We have people who have been deployed two or three times.

“If you lined them up, could you really tell?” she asked, referring to active and Reserve soldiers. “We all have our combat patches. We all have to go to the same schools.”

“We might be better at solving problems at the civilian level,” added Capt. Andy McConnell of the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, a police officer and reservist from Orange County, Calif.

Some, such as Taluto, the division commander, are full-time employees of the National Guard.

“I didn’t have to come here; I volunteered,” said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Wombacher, a 28-year employee of the New Jersey Guard. “All my unit is activated. I didn’t want my guys to go without me.”

Wombacher, who is assigned to the 50th Main Support Battalion at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, said his guardsmen spent long hours at the tank range back in the States.

In Iraq, they fix weapons, tanks, laser range-finders and howitzers.

“Most of the guys in my section have trained with me for 10 years at a minimum,” Wombacher said. “We’ve got a lot of technicians activated for this deployment.

“As far as the knowledge, you don’t have to look for it. It’s there.”


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