Returning troops face challenges, too
On Friday, 41 more citizen soldiers will leave Storm Lake and their families for a likely year's mission to Kosovo, just days before the first of 25 more local men begin to filter back home after 18 months away in which they have seen dangerous duty in Iraq.
The fresh deployment to Kosovo will take nearly the entire trained strength of the Storm Lake armory overseas, and will be the second or third period of extended active duty for some of the local soldiers - and yet, spirits remain high, and recruitment remains strong for the local unit, according to Staff Sgt. Roger Ingeldue.
"As far as I am concerned, we have heroes coming home, and we have more heroes leaving home," Ingeldue said.
The public is invited to a sendoff ceremony at the armory in Storm Lake on Friday, starting at 5 p.m. The main speaker will be Brigadier General Steven D. Saunders, who heads the Iowa National Guard's readiness and education efforts. He will have first-hand experience to share with the Storm Lake soldiers, having been deployed to Kosovo as the Deputy Commander of Operations for a Multi-National Brigade in 2004.
After the brief ceremony, the public will clear out to give the men precious last moments with their loved ones. Two hours after the sendoff, they will be on a bus bound for Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for infantry training. They join units from across the U.S. and several other countries in a United Nations joint peacekeeping mission.
The tense region of Serbia is under U.N. control as it seeks independence, despite long-running political and territorial disputes between the Serbian (and formerly Yugoslav) government and Kosovo's largely Albanian population.
The Storm Lake Armory is rated for full strength at about 90 soldiers. There are currently a solid 84 - but 26 of those are fresh recruits now in boot camp. With the trained soldiers away on duty, only a skeleton crew under Ingeldue will remain on hand locally. In the event of a disaster in this area, the Guard would have to depend on help from another region, officials say.
Despite the imminent potential for the call to deployments for as long as two years at a time, the local Guard seems to be having no trouble retaining its recruiting ability, Ingeldue reflects.
"It doesn't appear hard to recruit, and we are nearing 100 percent strength again. I think it is a mix of patriotism and the incentives - I see some very intelligent young people who want to serve their country and also take advantage of the enlistment bonuses and student loan assistance. The pay for deployment duty is also pretty decent - so they don't have to worry too much about hardships for their families while they are away from their regular careers."
The Storm Lake unit has proven its mettle in anti-terrorism security measures stateside, and in combat situations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This is its second full deployment, but smaller bands of members have been called up in support of almost every U.S. deployment since the 9/11 terrorist assaults, Ingeldue said. Every member also clings to the memory of Sgt. Greg Tull, a member of the "Magnificent Seven" group from the local armory, who gave his life in a bombing in Iraq.
Most of the soldiers who have be deployed have turned around and re-upped for additional service in the Guard, Ingeldue said, knowing they might be called again. "One or two may get soured on the experience, but most of these people develop a sort of bond with their military experience and their fellow soldiers that you just cannot deny. It may sound like a cliche from the movies, but they actually do become brothers in arms. Lots of these guys will be buddies for life, no matter what they may go through, and that has value to them."
On the homefront, a Family Readiness Group remains active, providing care packages to the local soldiers and giving whatever support they can to families of deployed soldiers.
"The ISU Extension has given them a place to meet and even provided babysitters for them to be able to gather. Any time a fundraiser has been needed, this community has responded," Ingeldue said.
Sharon Frisbee has led the group recently. Her husband is on the way home from Iraq after 18 months.
The soldiers also appreciate the support of the community - even those who oppose the politics of the war seem to stand behind those who are doing their duty in Iraq and elsewhere.
"Everybody supports the soldiers. I'm not sure how they are able to support these individuals without believing in the war they are fighting, but in many cases that is what seems to be happening," Ingeldue said. "We don't experience the negatives here in Storm Lake that they may in other regions. Nobody is going to spit on these soldiers coming back, like they did during Vietnam. Some people may choose to protest, but that's their right. To be honest, that's part of what these soldiers are here to do - defend the right of the people in this country to do that."
As dozens depart, the armory staff prepares to welcome the others home from Iraq. Most have just arrived stateside, and are currently scheduled to arrive July 25 in Waterloo for a welcoming ceremony. No public event is planned for Storm Lake.
In a sense, the public has become desensitized from the atrocities of combat as the war has worn on, the staff sergeant reflected, but to the returning soldiers, the stress they have experienced may be real and lasting.
"There is a readjustment period as they go back into their regular lives. The system kind of watches out and pinpoints people who may need some help. These days the Guard provides return seminars and even briefing for what it may be like to be back with their families after 18 months, and even help for the families to readjust too. A lot of the guys just blow it off, but there will be help there for anyone who needs it," said Ingeldue.
All of the 25 will be offered 90 days off before having to return to training drills.
The returning men (women are not allowed to deploy in Guard combat missions) will not want a lot of ceremony or extra attention, he predicts.
"It's been tough on them. Eighteen months away is too long. These guys are ready to come home."
What do they need from their community?
"Just a thank you. They don't expect more than that, and they would be very happy with hearing those words from people at home, to know that they were not forgotten," Ingeldue said.
"A thank you - I think they've earned that."