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Back to Iraq 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or Gov. Chris Gregoire it's the funerals. For Lietta Ruger, it's that her three grandchildren, all 7 or younger, haven't seen their father for 40 months of their lives. For Becky Smith, it was turning on the tape recorder at breakfast or at bath time to capture the voices of her children so their dad could hear them during a year away at war.





"That's so hard to keep a soldier as part of a family when he is gone for a year," Smith says.





These are three women, vastly different in some respects, all grappling with the Washington Army National Guard's second deployment to the war in Iraq in the last four years.





The Guard's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team (HBCT) is training this month at the Yakima firing range. By mid-August, the 3,300 soldiers in the brigade will be placed on 12 months of federal active duty, move to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for advanced training and leave for various bases in northern Iraq by October.





Nine soldiers in the 81st were killed during the previous deployment in 2004-05. A tenth, who had volunteered to stay in Iraq with another unit, was killed shortly after the 81st came home.





Gregoire was new to office then. Dealing with war is "... the most difficult thing as governor, and one I never anticipated," she says.





She remembers turning to her husband Mike, a Vietnam veteran, after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan. "Mike and I made a commitment that if the country lost any Washingtonian, we would go to their memorial service. Neither one of us said anything (about the death toll) out loud, but I think we both thought that would be a couple of people."





She pauses for a beat.





"There have been 85 in Washington who have been lost. We've gone to all the funerals, Mike more than me because of my schedule. We have seen communities just heartbroken, but we also sense the pride and the love ... it is far and away the single most difficult thing as governor," Gregoire says.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ietta Ruger is blunt: "I am not from the peace culture." The 57-year-old woman from Bay Center, Wash., was raised in a military family, is married to a Vietnam veteran and has family members serving in the regular Army.





Yet three years ago, Ruger was in a conference room at the state Capitol among a group urging one of Gregoire's top policy advisors to keep the Washington National Guard out of federal hands. She still advocates an end to the war as a member of Military Families Speak Out.





"I believe we need a military, but I don't like to see the military abused," which is what is happening, she says, with extended tours of duty, a stop-loss policy that doesn't allow soldiers to leave at the end of their service contract, repeat deployments and heavy reliance on Reserve and National Guard troops.





According to the Army, "more than 285,000" of 440,000 National Guard soldiers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan through last year. And the list grows: Last fall, 20,000 Guard troops, including Washington's, were put on alert for deployment this year. In May, another 14,000 Guard troops were notified of deployments in 2009. On May 20, Department of Defense stop-loss policy went into effect for soldiers in the 81st HBCT, meaning any retirements or "end of time in service" are on hold until August 2009.





Ruger objects that the National Guard is increasingly called away from its historical mission of service within the state. Nearly two years ago the Bush Administration and Congress -- despite the objection of the governors of all 50 states -- revised the 201-year-old Insurrection Act so that the federal government, not the states, could call out the Guard for natural disasters or other emergencies.





"I totally object to that," Gregoire says. "We have been trying to turn that back and we are determined to turn that back."





Gregoire says she is troubled that Reserve units and the National Guard are being increasingly tapped for overseas combat on a scale not seen since World War II.





Ruger faults the Bush administration for failing to make a good case about why we are fighting in Iraq. She is incensed that part-time soldiers and their families are repeatedly being forced to deal with death, injury and emotional trauma of war.





"That should be a signal right there that we don't have enough troops, but people don't seem to be too concerned about it. There is not much awareness of the impact on wives and mothers and grandfathers. This is completely contained on the backs of military families," she says.





"There is a lot of blah-blah-blah and hyperbole about patriotism, but the premise that we are a country at war and there is a need for civilians to also sacrifice seems to be forgotten," Ruger says.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or Becky Smith, the politics and the rhetoric come down to this: Sometime after 4 am on the fourth morning after her husband returned from Iraq, she awoke to see that he had their oldest child (about 6 at the time) in a headlock and his other arm drawn back and cocked.





By 4:30 she was on the phone with a military help line. By 7:30 Sgt. First Class Dean Smith, a platoon leader with the Washington National Guard in Baghdad, was seeing a counselor.





"That was a surprise," Dean Smith says. "I was in the middle of a dream and all of a sudden felt something on my arm. I instinctively pulled her over into a headlock and had my other arm up ready to hit her."





He was awakened before he threw the punch and is eternally grateful.





"That's the only time that happened. I came up ready to swing but I've been fortunate enough not to hurt anyone in my family," he says.





Smith had made it a point to seek out counseling even before he was deployed in 2004 (he wanted advice on how to cope with death and violence), and was back in his counselor's office in a matter of hours that terrible morning.





"It's good I did. I was able to start working through things right from the get-go. I know it helped a bunch," he says.





Readjustment took time.





"After 90 days I felt more in my skin -- that would be a good way to put it," he says. "Everybody is different, but for me it seemed like after the third month I seemed not to worry so much about having my back to a door or avoiding crowds."





It may seem a small thing, but these are the moments in the darkness of night that can break apart families.





Becky Smith, who is not from a military family, had a hard time during the first deployment. She went back to work. She had two children just entering school who didn't understand why their dad was gone. One became angry and sad and needed counseling.





It overwhelmed Becky Smith at times.





"There are times I don't want Dean to be a soldier. I resent this war. It made me mad. It changed my kid," she says. "When we first got the word he was going again, I hated it. I hated it. We have just gotten back to our life."





But she also knows Dean loves being a soldier and she won't ask him to give it up. And she says help is out there for the families.





During the first deployment, veterans showed up and completed the raised-bed gardens Dean was creating for his daughters. Others helped with house projects.





This time, Becky Smith says, the state is better prepared and already has support groups in place. There are movie nights, teas and other activities where families can seek each other out and find support."That's a good report to hear," says John Lee, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. Lee and Gregoire both say the state has learned from the 81st HBCT's first deployment and will earlier and more often check on the emotional health and readjustment issues of returning soldiers and their families.





Still, it's a mixed bag. The Smiths have three daughters now, one an infant. The older two are now 10 and 8 and are looking forward to keeping journals and getting a Web cam to allow some visual touch with their dad.





And, there will be a special T-shirt.





"I am going to make a shirt of the top 10 things not to say to a deployed soldier's wife," Becky Smith says:





"I hope he comes home in one piece!"





"Did you see the news today? Three National Guardsmen were blown up."





Jokes, dark as they can be sometimes, are a great help when grappling with the seriousness of war, the Smiths say.





WAR'S TOLL


Soldiers in the Washington National Guard who were killed during their first deployment to Iraq in 2004-05; the 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team included units from California.





SGT Jeffrey Shaver killed in action, 12 May 2004


HOMETOWN: Newport, Wash.


SPC Daniel Unger killed in action, 26 May 2004


HOMETOWN: Fresno, Calif.


2LT Andre Tyson killed in action, 22 June 2004


HOMETOWN: Long Beach, Calif.


SPC Patrick McCaffrey killed in action, 22 June 2004


HOMETOWN: Tracy, Calif.


SPC Jeremiah Schmunk killed in action, 08 July 2004


HOMETOWN: Warden, Wash.


SPC Donald McCune II died of wounds, 05 August 2004


HOMETOWN: Ypsilanti, Mich.


SGT Quoc Tran killed in action, 07 November 2004


HOMETOWN: Mission Viejo, Calif.


SFC Michael Ottolini killed in action, 10 November 2004


HOMETOWN: Sebastapol, Calif.


SGT Damien Ficek killed in action, 30 December 2004


HOMETOWN: Pullman, Wash.


CPL Glenn Watkins died of wounds, 05 April 2005


HOMETOWN: Kent, Wash.





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