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Long Guard stays in Iraq spawning complaints

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New complaints are accumulating about the long stay of Utah National Guard troops in Iraq.

Last week the Deseret Morning News reported unhappiness among some members of the Guard's 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion, a linguist group that probably will have to stay in Iraq until April 2004. This week, two relatives of soldiers deployed to Iraq with the Guard's 1457th Engineer Battalion contacted the paper independently.

The unit is a combat engineering group based in American Fork. According to the Pentagon's latest list of mobilized troops, 521 soldiers of the battalion have been called into active duty.

A relative of one of those soldiers said on Monday that he has heard the 1457th will have to stay in Iraq until August 2004.

But a Utah National Guard spokesman replied that as far as he knows, they should return around April 2004, a year after they arrived in Iraq. The spokesman believes the Utahns are doing work that the Army deems important.

A policy announced last week by the Pentagon said that Guard and Reserve units will spend one year overseas. The clock started ticking whenever they reached the Middle East — in military parlance, "boots on ground" — and not when they were activated, which in some cases was months earlier.

"I'm very angry," said the relative, who believes the combat engineers will have to stay in Iraq until August 2004. "I'm going to do and say what I can, and yell and scream at anyone who will listen."

He believes the proportion is far too large compared with the citizen soldier contributions of some other states like California. "Why Utah? Where's everybody else?" he asked.

Also, he thinks regular Army combat engineering groups were not sent overseas.

"Isn't there any rotation?" he wondered. Other relatives he talked with are "genuinely angry, because we're all getting the same news" about an extended deployment.

A relative of a soldier with the 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion sent along information to the newspaper and added, "Hopefully you will put it to excellent use and get the real truth out there about all of our troops and of the corruption that is occurring."

A wife of another soldier in the 1457th said she feels intimidated about raising concerns, so she asked that she and her husband not be identified.

The woman said she had believed her husband would be home in January, about a year after the 1457th was called up. "Even that was hard for my husband to handle," she said. "Hardly ever are the National Guard deployed for a year."

But now to hear that the 1457th will not be back until it has spent a year in the Middle East, "That is almost like the light at the end of the tunnel went out.

"He (her husband) was devastated, and I think a lot of the other guys were too."

Besides the emotional toll, a lengthy deployment can create an economic impact on families and employers, she said.

Meanwhile, she does not think the 1457th is doing much work in Iraq that is important.

"They've fixed the zoo, the zoo in Baghdad," she said in a telephone interview. "They've cut down trees, they've moved rocks." They built a tank range. But some of the Iraqi people's basic needs are not being met, she charged.

"It doesn't make any sense to keep them any longer so they can continue to cut down trees or clean up parking lots," she said.

"I'm not a whiner," she said. If she felt her husband was involved in beneficial work, she would feel differently. Instead, he has been watching a lot of videos and playing volleyball all day.

"That merits their staying another year?"

Lt. Lee Kelley, spokesman for the Utah National Guard, said the rule from the Pentagon is that units will spend one year "boots on ground." Beyond that, "there has been no official extension for that group."

He believes their year should be up in April 2004 for the 1457th.

"I would venture to say that everything they're being tasked to do is important in some way," Kelley said.

The 1457th is a core asset, one of the vital groups. "I can't imagine anything they're doing as not being very important," Kelley said.

Utah's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Brian L. Tarbet, visited the troops overseas, said Kelley. While Utah officers do not have control of troops activated by the federal government, they keep in touch with Utah soldiers and stay connected with family members.

"We have very good family support programs throughout the state," Kelley said.

He had not heard of these kinds of complaints concerning the 1457th before the Deseret Morning News contacted him.

"As individual soldiers," Kelley said, "we do whatever task is set before us."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com