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Minnesotans are among the thousands serving in Iraq
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Minnesota Army National Guard Captain Wayne Schlangen with his wife and two sons welcoming him home at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
One year ago U.S. military forces launched an attack on Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition quickly took control of the country and troops began rolling into Baghdad less than a month after the invasion began. But following that initial success U.S. forces have been plagued by many small attacks which have killed hundreds and injured thousands. Trying to bring order to Iraq continues to be the job of tens of thousands of American troops, including soldiers from Minnesota.

St. Paul, Minn. — As of March 19, 2004, 385 U.S. troops have been killed in hostilities since the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom one year ago. Four Minnesotans have died in combat, each of them long after May 1 when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

The Department of Defense says another 2868 troops have sustained combat wounds over the past 12 months.

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Image Minnesota Army National Guard Soldier Dave Nelson

Like the deaths, most of the combat wounds occurred after May 1st. Michele Loftus, who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, was severely injured in Iraq last summer.

"You hear it everyday, it's one or two and sometimes more. After being in a situation like that you kind of reflect on what happened in your case," Loftus says.

In Loftus' case, a roadside bomb in Baghdad exploded next to the Humvee she was riding in. The homemade bomb made of nails, clay and scrap metal left Loftus lucky to be alive, but suffering severe facial injuries.

That was July 2003.

Loftus, speaking from her military base in Fort Hood, Texas, says she's in good spirits, although not fully recovered.

"We still have a little bit of work to do on the bone that's missing on my gum line so that I can have implants to put in for the teeth that were lost," Loftus says. "And that will be another two surgeries and some additional scar reduction, probably two or three for the scar reduction."

Loftus' medical brigade has returned from Iraq but fellow soldiers are expecting a fall redeployment to Baghdad. Loftus says she won't be well enough to go, but she hopes to meet up with her unit when she's declared fit for combat.

It's kind of hard to believe. You've got to pinch yourself to realize you're actually here.
- The Commander of the 142nd Engineering battalion's C- Company, Captain Wayne Schlangen

There are upwards of 120,000 U.S. troops in Iraq with a constant rotation of soldiers in and out of the war zone. Earlier this week, a more than year-long deployment finally ended for nearly 150 members of a Minnesota Army National Guard engineering unit based at Camp Ripley.

The commander of the 142nd Engineering battalion's C- Company, Captain Wayne Schlangen is joined at his homecoming by his wife, his two boys. His mother and father also greeted him at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"It's kind of hard to believe. You've got to pinch yourself to realize you're actually here," Schlangen says. "So, it's good to be home."

Schlangen says he has a lot to catch up on.

"I got a 14 month 'honey-do' list to look at to see what I need to do so," Schlangen says laughing. He also says he'll need to get used to being in Minnesota.

"(I've got to) just take some time and readjust to get used to being back home. (I've) got to get used to the temperature."

Dave Nelson is also happy to be home. He was greeted at the airport by his wife Becky.

"You're confused because everything has changed," Nelson says. "You've lost a whole year. Things are weird. It's just different. It's good to be home."

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Image Veteran Steve Enebo at the Bloomington VFW

Nelson and his fellow soldiers say the Army has advised them to get in touch with their county veterans services officers soon so that they'll get the benefits entitled to them.

"That's one of the first things everybody has to do. They encourage you to go see your VA specialist," Nelson says.

Anoka County Veterans Service Officer Duane Krueger says his office has had plenty of activity recently.

"January for us was the busiest, busiest month that we have had for new clientele in the 30 years that I have been with Anoka County and I see that getting busier because many of those were not even the individuals that are involved with Iraq," he says.

Krueger says he tries to contact every veteran returning to Anoka county.

"Basically we welcome them back," Krueger says. "We advise them of what our services are. We tell them that we are here to help them --that we are here as their agent to assist them in taking care of this paperwork."

Krueger says more than anything, county offices like his can help veterans navigate an often complicated system that can stand between veterans and the help and compensation they've earned.

"The claim form, if you want to file a claim for a service connected disability, quite honestly, it's eight pages of instruction and 16 pages of form. We can fill it out for them in 15 minutes where the estimated respondent burden is 1 1/2 hours," Krueger says.

Krueger says so far he's seen about one third of the roughly 150 Iraqi war vets he's identified in Anoka county. He says he's going to try to sell all of them.

As some Minnesotans return from the war, others are rotating into Iraq.

At the Bloomington VFW, Steve Enebo, who's son is serving in Afghanistan, has spent much of the past year collecting supplies for troops serving abroad. He says he and other veterans will continue to help out any way they can.

"We've been sending Christmas and Thanksgiving gifts. Valentines, phone cards...anything that they would need."

Enebo says as the war with Iraq continues, support and donations for the soldiers have not fallen off.

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