In the Spotlight

News & Features
Pawlenty in Bosnia
Pawlenty in Bosnia
DocumentCheering the soldiers of Minnesota
DocumentA visit to a massacre
DocumentFinding weapons
DocumentNational Guard service: worth the sacrifice?
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
National Guard service: worth the sacrifice?
Larger view
Col. John Dewey, stationed in Bosnia, says Guard members have to understand and accept deployments as a natural part of the job. He says today's workforce often requires compromises, even in non-military families. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is back in Minnesota Wednesday after a two-day visit with National Guard troops keeping the peace in Bosnia. The 1,100 Minnesotans stationed there are the largest Minnesota deployment since World War II -- and are part of a new emphasis on using Guard members to shoulder the country's growing military obligations. That new reality has left some wondering if they can afford to make the sacrifice.

Tuzla, Bosnia — Only a few years ago, the prospects for a long-term, overseas Guard deployment seemed remote. The Cold War was over and there were few obvious threats to U.S. security. Then came Sept. 11, and Afghanistan, and, finally, Iraq.

Lt. Col. Kevin Gutknecht of Eagan commands Task Force Iron near the Bosnian-Croatian border. Gutknecht says the sudden demands on active duty soldiers have raised the Guard's visibility and obligations.

"So now they're relying on the Guard to step up to the plate and fill in -- because the active duty can't keep up with the op tempo," says Gutknecht. "That hasn't been the case in the past, because they haven't had so many strategic kinds of missions. Now they need the Guard. They need the Reserves."

Larger view
Image Gen. Larry Ellis

Gen. Larry Ellis heads the U.S. Army Forces Command. During a quick visit to Bosnia, he acknowledged the sacrifices made by activated Guard members around the world.

"This mission right here is 99.9 percent Guard and Reserve. You're running the show," Ellis said. "You're running the show in Kosovo. You're running the show in Guantanamo Bay. You're running the show in the Sinai. All Guard and Reserve."

But the new demands come with a price. Many of the Minnesota soldiers serving in Bosnia say they hadn't anticipated the extent of their commitments, or the disruptions to their lives and families, when they enlisted before Sept. 11, 2001. Most have been in Bosnia since September and won't return to Minnesota until late March or April.

Lt. Jason Ulbrich of St. Cloud is a platoon leader in Task Force Iron. He says he's served 14 years in the military and had planned to put in 20 in order to collect retirement benefits. Now he's not so sure.

"To be honest, before I came to Bosnia, I've always said, 'Hey, I'm staying in my 20 no matter what.' But I am rethinking," Ulbrich says. "I don't know if my family deserves me leaving for another six months to a year. And that's something ... my family and I have to sit down and discuss when we get home."

Larger view
Image Keeping up via video

Ulbrich's concerns aren't news to Gutknecht, who says it could be more difficult to retain Guard soldiers, now that the Army is asking more of each member. Gutknecht says his own family faces similar pressures. His wife, Jane Vanderpoel, has been managing their household and children in his absence.

Vanderpoel is a former Guard member herself. But she says when the Bosnia deployment ends, she'd like her husband to reconsider his commitment.

"Do I wish he were at home on weekends to go to the soccer games with the kids? Absolutely. And I'm sure he will wish to stay in after the deployment is over and continue his career in the Guard. And we'll just have to see what happens," says Vanderpoel.

This weekend, Guard families in the St. Cloud area will gather at the Waite Park VFW for a Christmas party. Stacey Austing-Jacobson of Melrose is helping to arrange the final preparations. Her husband, Sgt. Nate Jacobson, is currently serving in Bosnia.

Stacey says the holidays can be especially difficult with her husband gone, but that she and others have been fortunate to have support from the community, the Guard, and their extended families. None of that, however, made it easier last spring for her to accept the news of Nate's deployment.

"I just was in shock. ... I started crying, you know, just because of the shock of it all. And I said, 'You are going to miss so much,'" Austing-Jacobson says.

I've always said, 'Hey, I'm staying in my 20 (years), no matter what.' But I am rethinking. I don't know if my family deserves me leaving for another six months to a year.
- Lt. Jason Ulbrich

Like other Guard spouses, Stacey says she hadn't expected that her husband's service would demand so much of his time and attention away from the family. She says she's proud of his accomplishments and sense of duty -- but for now those feelings will have to be conveyed by Internet video messages sent across the Atlantic.

"I just wanted to say I love you guys all very much. And it's really fun to see your little videos that you sent me," Jacobson said to his family via video.

Minnesota Guard soldiers and their families say they first must get through the current deployment in Bosnia, but they also worry about future disruptions. Deborah Fitzwater-Dewey says she expects the new reliance on the Guard will continue for some time. That would mean additional time without her husband, Lt. Col. John Dewey.

"My fear now is that by having the experience in Bosnia, where they are dealing more with the Muslim populations there on a friendly basis, that's a better relationship-building tool for Iraq. So that worries me, too, that they may have more skills and look better to go to Iraq," says Fitzwater-Dewey.

Her husband, Col. John Dewey, says he's not ready to step aside from his Guard career just yet. Back on Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, Dewey helps coordinate the logistics of base operations. He says Guard members -- current and potential -- have to understand and accept deployments as a natural part of the job. And he points out that today's workforce often requires compromises, even in non-military families.

"It's not for everybody. It certainly isn't. But for some of us, it gives us a sense of accomplishment. It provides opportunities to learn about history and about some culture," says Dewey.

But the concerns clearly weigh on the minds of many deployed Guard members. During Gov. Tim Pawlenty's visit to Bosnia earlier this week, he was asked several times how the state can smooth out some of the rough patches of life in the Guard. Pawlenty offered few specifics, but said suppporting Guard families is a top priority.

But Minnesota National Guard Adj. Gen. Larry Shellito, who travelled with Pawlenty, offered some perspective on what is possible.

"There's 175,000 reserve components deployed. There was a rumor out there that you're going to get a $5,000 bill. You do the math on that and it's fiscally -- can't be done. So do not expect any golden parachute," Shellito said.

For now, all that Guard families expect and hope for is a safe return for their spouses or parents or children. As Jane Vanderpoel notes, her kids are worried about their father. And the family dog, she says, is inconsolable.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects