Relatives hear details about guard extension
|Diane Randall expression was typical of many of the spouses, mothers, fathers, siblings and other relatives that attended a meeting with Major General Brian Tarbet at the Utah National Guard Armory in Price on Friday afternoon. The gathering was held to give information to relatives and employers of guard members from the 1457th Engineering Battalion, whose stay in the middle east has been extended.|
There was laughter, there was concern, there was fear and there were tears. And finally, in it's most plain form, there was the truth.
The wives, mothers and families, as well as a few employers, found out for certain on Friday afternoon that the soldiers they know and love, the ones from the local 1457th Engineering Battalion, would not be coming home in May as expected.
"The request from the commanding general of the theater that some units be extended rattled around in the system for about 10 days before the decisions were made," said Major General Brian Tarbet of the Utah National Guard at a meeting in the Price Armory on Friday afternoon, where over 50 people were gathered to hear what most thought was a foregone conclusion. "Many kinds of units involving 20,000 soldiers have been extended. From the various states national guard units 3,000 soldiers in 17 units were involved. One of those requested was the 1457th."
However, the problem many people at the meeting expressed was that they heard the news from the media rather than through official channels. Some also expressed dismay at the fact they were the ones to tell their soldiers the extension was official.
"We didn't get the official word until late Tuesday night, so we couldn't say for sure until then," stated Tarbet. "But in fact, as of right now, that is all we know for a fact. We do not know for a fact how long they will be there, nor do we know for a fact what their mission will be. I can't speculate about that, but I can tell you where they are and what they will be doing today."
Tarbet told the group that the unit is still in Kuwait, where they have been for the last two weeks since being moved out of Baghdad where another National Guard unit from Virginia has taken over for them. He went on to describe their position as being in a "transitory area" where the guardsmen are sleeping about 70 to a tent and that they have good dining facilities and laundry services.
"According to the reports that I hear from their commanders each day the services are good, but it is very crowded."
Tarbet, who had done three other meetings similar to this earlier in the week in pish Fork, Ephraim and Tooele said that stateside individuals may have heard less from the soldiers in Kuwait than they did when they were in Baghdad because the internet sites in Kuwait are much more limited than the soldiers had in their own facilities in Iraq.
"A lot of the situation that has occurred here over this extension is that you have been twice disappointed, first last September and of course now," explained Tarbet. "I apologize for that, but it is in direct response to missions that are taking place on the ground. It would be incorrect to assume this is not tied to the events that you have seen in the media the last two or three weeks. It's gotten to be a much tougher situation where they need more troops. Ours soldiers were there. Had it only been a matter of hours, it might have been others instead.The 1457th was not singled out. In some cases there were actually soldiers on airplanes that were turned around and brought back because of the requests."
With that Tarbet went on to talk about the future and how things will be handled.
"We will continue to get you as much information as we know," he emphasized. "But I am not going to come out and give you rumors until we have facts. When we find out how long it will be, and what the mission will be, we will get that information to you."
One of those rumors was about the length of time the troops will stay. Most people have been hearing between 90 and 120 days, but Tarbet could not confirm anything about that except to say that he believed any extension would be effective from the date they were to come out of the area.
He then went on to some common questions he had heard from various people in the last week. One of those questions was about leave, and if soldiers could take it during this extension. He said he didn't know and that the commanders in the field were working on that problem..
"One of the reasons they're keeping them there is that they need additional personnel on the ground, so I see it unlikely that leave will be granted. However, that is only a guess on my part."
One of the things he emphasized was that even though the 1457th is a Utah Guard unit, it has now been federalized until their tour is over and control over many of the policies and procedures are made at the federal level, not at the state level..
Tarbet said that one of the major concerns is the condition of the equipment the soldiers have, after facing a year of adverse conditions. High temperatures, sand and other situations have taken their toll on the equipment that the unit still has and because of the fact they were preparing to go home, they have also been shorted somewhat on parts for repair of those pieces of equipment..
|Major General Brian Tarbet|
"When a unit is being sent stateside the supply line for parts is cut off and they are told to fix things when they get it home. Now they will be getting their equipment ready for the possibility of going back into Iraq. It's now really a function of time, having the parts and repair facilities to get the repairs done."
That brought up the point of where, if redeployed, the Guard unit will go.. Tarbet said that no one knew at this point. They could go back in as a total unit, companies, squads or even in some cases individuals if that is how they are ordered to do so.
"We're here to not diminish your expectations, but to give you the worse case scenario," stated Tarbet, getting to the meat of the issue. "These troops could stay in the area up until February of 2005. That would meet the statutory limit of the law, two years active service."
He then said he didn't think it would go that long, however, he wanted everyone to be prepared if it did.
He pointed out that because of the extension, the level of benefits for the soldiers and their families would not change. He also said that, contrary to what he had known at the other meetings he had held earlier in the week, extension pay would be coming to the troops and families, a fact he only found out about Thursday evening. However, the new version of it may not take effect until Sept. 1 and Tarbet said he "hoped the unit wouldn't be there long enough to collect on it" if that were the case. He said more information would be forthcoming.
Some soldiers have also already sent a number of items to the states in anticipation of coming home. Some of what they sent may be very important if they have to go back into Iraq.
"If you find stuff that you think is military, let us know," exclaimed Tarbet. "We'll then work through family support to see if there is a way we can sent it back to them."
Tarbet also pointed out that the possibility of the unit reentering Iraq was not a sure thing.
"This has been done because the command there has concern about the number of troops available. It's pure speculation, but there is the chance they may never leave Kuwait. However, that's just speculation; we just don't know."
He pointed out that many officials from the Utah National Guard as well as government representatives from Utah, including the governor and all the senators and congressman, are talking with the Army about the unit and the time it has already served in the area.
"The unit is not as ready as it was when it left here," he said. "It is smaller because some personnel have been sent home for various reasons and the equipment needs repair. I don't believe the commanders there would send the unit into combat without them being completely prepared."
Tarbet pointed out that he and his staff will be leaving for Kuwait to evaluate the readiness of the unit and to make the same point to the federal commanders.
"We have input into what can happen, but the decision is with the commanders on the ground," Tarbet reinterated.
Also present at the meeting were representatives from each of the states congressmen and senators. Toward the end of the meeting two of them spoke to the families and explained what their offices were doing and how concerned individuals could contact them. However, it was Tarbet who handled some of the tough questions, and tougher emotions expressed by many of those in attendance. While there were periods of levity in the meeting, it was a deadly serious undertaking to explain the situation and what may and may not happen.
When asked about the morale of the unit, Tarbet was quick to point out that he thought that the soldiers morale was actually better than many of those left at home at this time.
"The hardest part for them is the uncertainty," he stated. "Once they have a definite mission their heads will be right back in the game. This is a unit that is used to working, not sitting around in lawn chairs. They have had a super report card from top to bottom with everyone they have worked with in the last year."
But the Major General also understood that there is more to morale than just what is going on where the troops are located.
"To be honest, their morale will be a function of your morale. You are a big part of helping them to focus on the job they have to do," he stated and then he referred to the difficulty for those wanting the soldiers back. "I know it is a tough thing that we are asking you to do."