Guard families fight extended Iraq tour of duty

/ Source: The Associated Press

After waiting a year for their loved ones to come home, relatives of a Wisconsin National Guard unit received a double shock in the past week: One of its soldiers was killed in Iraq, and the rest had their tour of duty extended four months.

Some families of soldiers in the Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company are responding with an Internet campaign to urge President Bush and members of Congress to intervene to bring back the company’s 160 soldiers, who had been scheduled to return from Iraq by early next month.

“We are not anti-war,” said Linda Aber, whose 22-year-old daughter, Kelli, is in the unit. “We feel it is unfair at this point. Mentally, we feel they are spent. ... We’re trying to put some pressure on politicians to help.”

Aber, 44, of Madison, helped create a Web site, which includes elected officials’ phone numbers, to publicize the campaign.

Senator writes to Rumsfeld
The office of Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said he had received about 100 calls and 120 e-mails by Thursday regarding the Guard unit’s extension.

In a statement, Feingold said he wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the families’ concerns and urged him to do “all he can to increase the predictability of deployments.”

The lack of predictable deployments has been a problem since the start of the war and “can have a corrosive effect on morale,” Feingold wrote.

The Pentagon said Thursday it is extending by three months the tours of about 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, giving commanders extra firepower to confront an insurgency that is taking a mounting toll. About one-quarter of the troops are members of the National Guard or Reserve.

The decision breaks a promise to soldiers who were assured when they arrived in Iraq that they would stay no more than a year. By extending their tours of duty by three months, the Pentagon is acknowledging the insurgency has ruined its plans to reduce the size of the U.S. military presence this spring.

Woman is unit's first fatality since WWII
The news about the 32nd Police Company’s extended tour of duty came as it mourned the death of Spc. Michelle Witmer, 20, who was killed April 9 when her Humvee came under attack in Baghdad. She was the first Wisconsin National Guard soldier to die in military combat since World War II and the first woman Guard member ever killed in combat.

Two of her sisters also served in Iraq, one in the same Guard unit and the other as a medic in another unit. They returned home on leave and haven’t decided whether they will return to Iraq.

Witmer’s flag-draped casket was returned from Iraq late Thursday. Her sisters and other family members watched as the remains, after arriving at Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport, were placed in a hearse. A memorial service was held Wednesday.

The 32nd was called to active duty in March 2003 and sent to Iraq last May. Some members were mobilized for duty in Bosnia before the current deployment, said Mary Kulla, whose husband, Scott, has been in Iraq 13 months.

‘Is there somebody else’
“Is there somebody else who could take this mission over and be just as effective and hasn’t been in combat for a year already?” asked Kulla, 31, of Lake Mills, the family coordinator for the unit.

Ronald Bearce Jr., a Vietnam veteran whose son Spc. Ronald Bearce III is in the unit, said all families with soldiers in Iraq want them to come home. But he added that he also understands the value of keeping experienced troops in the war zone.

“I got to grin and bear it. I am proud of what they are doing,” Bearce said.