Visiting the troops- Families of North Dakota soldiers ride bus

FARGO, N.D. -- When a recently activated North Dakota National Guard unit got three days off from its training in Colorado, family members back home knew what to do: About 60 of them boarded two buses for a 15-hour trip to visit the troops.

"I've been double-fisting with the cell phone and my home phone trying to make arrangements," said Tammy King, who runs the volunteer family support group for the North Dakota guard's 142nd Engineer Battalion and helped organize the trip to Fort Carson, Colo.

It was a fitting scene for families in North Dakota. The state has had a higher percentage of military-age residents, ages 18 to 64, called from the reserves to active duty or placed on alert than any other state, according to an Associated Press analysis of Pentagon figures.

Of North Dakota's 386,873 military-age residents, 1,495 National Guard and Reserve soldiers have been told to report, the Pentagon said. That's a rate of 38.6 soldiers per 10,000.

North Dakota is followed by the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, South Dakota, West Virginia, Delaware, Nebraska and South Carolina.

About 645 of the 700 soldiers in the Fargo-based 142nd Engineer Battalion were placed on active duty last month, the biggest call-up in North Dakota. The 142nd handles general construction -- everything from carpentry to building roads and air strips.

Among those making the bus trip to Fort Carson over the weekend was the Matthys family -- 8-year-old Austin, 12-year-old Tyler and mom Vicky -- going to see Lowell Matthys, who is in the 142nd's personnel department.

The Matthys family had never been to Colorado.

"I'm anxious to see it," Tyler said. "But I'm more anxious to see my dad."

Vicky Matthys said a friend surprised her by picking up the cost of her tickets, about $98 apiece. And King said the support group, which gets its money from various fund-raisers, bought about five tickets for people who couldn't afford it.

"We've had so much support, from the neighbors and others," Vicky Matthys said, fighting back tears. "My husband and I have never been apart like this, ever."

Terry and Robin Christians drove about 100 miles from Herman, Minn., to get on the bus. Their son, Luke, was four days into the winter quarter at Minnesota State, Moorhead, when he was activated.

"We have two sons in the military, so we're pretty OK with it," Terry said. "This bus trip is something we felt we had to do. They are going off to war."

Mark Johnston, spokesman for South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, said he believes people in his state join the guard mainly out a "strong love of their country." He would not speculate on whether the poor farm economy was a factor in the number of soldiers who sign up in rural states.

"Soldiers have different reasons for serving," Johnston said. "Sure there are financial aspects, as an additional income for whatever reason. A lot of soldiers today take advantage of the education benefits.

"But the No. 1 factor, and I see it when I go to activation ceremonies, is the pride and dedication that they have to their unit."

North Dakota National Guard spokesman Rob Keller said it's also convenient to train in a state that has 24 armories.

"If a person wants to join a National Guard unit, he or she probably just has to drive to the next town or less than 50 miles away," Keller said.