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Soldiers' families want the 142nd back home
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Minnesota National Guard officials met with families of troops deployed in Iraq at Camp Ripley. Guard leaders say they understand families are frustrated by the Guard's extended stay in Iraq, but say there's nothing they can do about decisions made by the Army. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Family members of Minnesota National Guard troops deployed to Iraq say they're angry that their relatives won't be coming home soon. In early September, Army officials announced that reserve troops in Iraq could be there as long as a year. That means members of Camp Ripley's 142nd Engineering Division may not come home until summer of 2004. Minnesota National Guard officials understand why the families are upset, but say there's not much they can do.

Camp Ripley, Minn. — About 200 people came to Camp Ripley looking for news about the Guard's 142nd Engineering Division that's currently stationed near Baghdad. 145 soldiers from the division left Camp Ripley on January 29th. They spent three months at a camp in Colorado before actually going to Iraq.

Family members said it's time to bring those soldiers home. They said the soldiers complain of poor conditions and little meaningful work.

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Image Looking for answers

Barb Miller, whose daughter is a fueler for the 142nd, came to ask the Minnesota National Guard's acting leader, Brig. Gen. Harry Sieben, what her daughter is doing in Iraq. Miller said her daughter is confused about the Guard's mission in Iraq. Sieben told her that her daughter's job was to secure the infrastructure at bases in Iraq.

"They're fixing stuff and they're building stuff. A lot of it's for the security of the other United States forces that are there. They're not busy every minute of every day. But that's their primary mission," Sieben said.

Family members had another major question for Gen. Sieben. They wanted to know when their loved ones might come home. General Sieben's answer wasn't what they were hoping for. Until recently family members thought that homecoming might be this fall.

"They're coming out of the war zone in April and probably home not long after that. I don't know how long it would take the Army to wind it down and allow them to be released to civilian life, but within a few months I would imagine -- May, June, July," Sieben said.

Gen. Sieben said by federal law, the president can call up Guard troops for a tour of duty of two years. He said that's not likely to happen to the 142nd. At any rate, when the 142nd's mission is over, the soldiers may have spent almost a year a half away from their families.

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Image Where's Daddy?

That's too long for Carol Potter. Potter's husband and son are serving in Iraq. The last time Potter saw them was on Jan. 29.

"I come home to an empty house every night, and it's not fun. It's harder and harder for me to come home every night," Potter said.

Potter lives just a few miles from Camp Ripley. She invited about a dozen other wives and mothers of soldiers to her house after the meeting with Guard officials. They're all frustrated. They don't know when the soldiers will come home. And they're worried about their moral. They said the engineering division was trained to build roads and schools, and instead they're emptying toilets and building concrete pads for tents.

Carol Potter's daughter-in-law has another reason she wants her husband to come home quickly. Robin Potter gave birth to the couple's son in April. Potter said if her husband's mission in Iraq lasts as long as the Guard thinks it will, their son will be over a year old before he meets his dad.

"There's times that he calls home he doesn't even ask about his son. Which I can understand. I think it's just tearing him apart inside," Potter said.

Potter doesn't think her husband should spend his time in Iraq building concrete pads for tents. She said that's work for a private contractor, not an engineer in the Minnesota National Guard. National Guard officials said they'll do their best to find out when the troops can come home. But they have no say in when the soldiers will return, that decision is up to the Army.

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