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Malcolm Monteiro was only 6 months old when his father deployed to Kuwait in October, Megan Monteiro says. He will be almost 2 when Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Monteiro is scheduled to return.

Malcolm Monteiro was only 6 months old when his father deployed to Kuwait in October, Megan Monteiro says. He will be almost 2 when Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Monteiro is scheduled to return. (Steve Liewer / S&S)

GIEBELSTADT, Germany — Full of vigor ready for a fight, 18 “Ninja Squirrels” from the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment shipped out for Kuwait last October.

The platoon of UH-60 Black Hawk pilots and crew chiefs from Giebelstadt joined an Apache attack squadron from nearby Illesheim as part of Task Force 2/6 Aviation.

Long after the rest of the newly formed unit won the war and came home, the “Ninja Squirrels” still are baking in the Iraqi desert. Dismayed to learn the soldiers’ commanders planned to keep the platoon past one year — some as long as 16 months — in the interest of unit cohesion, their wives got busy writing letters and buttonholing generals.

“We’ve already done one set of holidays alone, and now we [were] looking at another,” said Colleen Carroll, whose husband, Capt. Mike Carroll, is the 5/158th Aviation’s personnel officer. “It’s a bizarre situation. I don’t know how it happened.”

Their lobbying has apparently paid off.

After two months of being told their husbands would spend a second winter in the Middle East, the wives found out Sunday that the unit has agreed to send the “Ninja Squirrels” home in October.

“We fully expect that these guys will come home after one year,” said Col. Roger King, U.S. Army Europe spokesman. “We’re going to stick to it in every case possible.”

King said his command wasn’t aware of plans to keep the “Ninja Squirrels” downrange so long until he received a query from Stars and Stripes last week. The query followed USAREUR commander Gen. B.B. Bell’s Aug. 4 memo stating V Corps units and troops would not have to stay in the Middle East past one year.

“This thing is being discussed at a lot of different levels,” King said. “This is all evolving as we go. We haven’t been in a situation quite like this before.”

From October through February, the “Ninja Squirrels” [a name they chose for themselves when they arrived in Kuwait] crisscrossed the theater hauling cargo, troops and VIPs.

They trained hard at flying in unpredictable desert conditions.

Then in early February, the rest of the 5/158th Aviation arrived from Germany. The “Ninja Squirrels” returned to the command of 12th Aviation Brigade, the 5/158th Aviation’s parent command from Giebelstadt, and received new orders extending them a full year, until February 2004.

“They were just kind of swept in,” said Susan Smith, whose husband is Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Smith, an Alpha Company pilot, “as if the [previous] four months never existed.”

The soldiers and their spouses endured a harrowing war that took a heavy toll on Army Black Hawks, including one nighttime training crash that killed a four-man crew from the 5/158th Aviation.

Baghdad fell just before the “Ninja Squirrels” hit the six-month mark. In June, the rest of the soldiers who deployed in October shipped their gear and returned to Germany under the Army’s unwritten “first-in, first-out” policy.

The “Ninja Squirrels” got to go home, too — but only for a two-week furlough.

The wives say the unit’s commanders made it clear none of the soldiers will leave Iraq permanently until all of them can leave. Carroll says their husbands won’t complain out of respect for command.

But that didn’t stop the soldiers’ wives.

On July 18, Carroll addressed a lengthy letter to Col. Raymond Palumbo, the 12th Brigade commander, and to Lt. Col. Eldon “Pete” Franks about the indefinite length of deployment.

Franks wrote back three days later. He told her the soldiers who deployed last October would receive a second two-week furlough in November but could promise no other relief.

“I can only say exactly what I have said from the time the battalion was given orders to deploy: that we will not return any earlier than February ’04,” he wrote. “Yes, we did hope the possibility of a sooner return was going to materialize, but it has not.”

The wives say they could live with the one-year deployments senior Defense Department officials say will now be normal. But they don’t believe it is fair their husbands should have to stay longer.

They say the long deployment already is taking a toll on their families.

“Our job is to keep up the home front, [but] it’s really hard to be strong every minute of every day,” said Meagan Monteiro, wife of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Monteiro and the mother of two children. “It’s hard not to fall apart in front of your kids.”

“You cry at night, by yourself,” Susan Smith added.

On July 23, acting Army Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane announced a new rotation schedule for Army and Marine Corps divisions in the Middle East. He also made it clear that one year — and no longer — would be the standard Army rotation in Iraq for the next two years.

Bell followed that up Aug. 4 with his 10th “Bell Gram,” a newsletter he writes to USAREUR families. In it he pledged that V Corps soldiers currently in the Middle East would serve no more than one year.

King said “Ninja Squirrels” commanders weren’t fully informed about the new deployment limits.

“[Franks] was operating under a lack of guidance,” King said. “It’s not that these are forgotten solders. There’s still time to fix this.”

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