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13,000 troops await deployment to Iraq
PAWHUSKA, Okla. -- National Guard Staff Sgt. Gabe Robinson knows he will be married only a matter of months before he's likely to redeploy to Iraq, but considers himself lucky he's been home since 2004.
Still, he worries about being injured.
"It's always in your mind," said Robinson, 32, who plans to marry in May. "Anyone who says they don't think about that, they are lying."
The Oklahoma City resident is among the 13,000 National Guard troops in Oklahoma, Indiana, Arkansas and an as-yet unspecified state expected to be notified soon that they could be sent to Iraq around the first of next year, military officials say.
"There's always going to be some apprehension out there," said Capt. Brad Hanna, a chaplain in the Oklahoma National Guard who served in Afghanistan. "We're not in the position of making policy; all we can do is be ready to do what we're called to do."
As the body count increases in Iraq, some governors have begun to voice concerns about the military's heavy use of National Guard troops.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said the Pentagon is, in effect, reinstating the draft on the backs of National Guard units. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said redeploying National Guardsmen from his state would be "stretching our citizen soldiers thin." North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said he's worried about morale and readiness.
National Guard deployments also can be hard on some small towns.
Pawhuska, a town of 3,500 people 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, will lose a member of its school board in the next National Guard deployment.
Sgt. 1st Class Earl Smith, 53, works full time for the National Guard at a tiny armory that is scheduled for closure under Pentagon downsizing plans. For him, the possibility of a deployment means his plans for military retirement are on hold.
If the orders stand, he will take about two dozen soldiers to Iraq next year on a security mission.
Members of Smith's unit work at car dealerships, construction sites and factories. One is recently unemployed.
This time next year, they could be in a desert half a world away from their home towns, behind the wheel of an armored vehicle or manning a .50-caliber machine gun.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Armstrong, a 36-year-old iron worker who's been in the guard about 16 years, said the not knowing has everybody on edge. But leaving his family and his job for at least a year is part of his duty. "Somebody's gotta do it," he says.
Capt. Chris Rogers, of Cary, N.C., served in Iraq with the 30th Brigade Combat Team in 2004. He says he hasn't given much thought to the possibility of returning.
"I don't really think about it," Rogers said. "I know it's part of the job. If we're called to go back, we'll go back."
Many folks in Pawhuska, as in many small towns, support the troops. But some find themselves questioning the mission and why more of their employees, Little League coaches and leaders are going over there.
"Seems like all we've done is spend a bunch of money and got a bunch of people hurt," said Pawhuska resident Jerry Slinkard.
Leaning on the tailgate of a pickup, Slinkard shoots the breeze with two buddies outside The Greek's, a popular cafe on the main drag of this town.
Between dips of chewing tobacco, they use the word "Vietnam" to describe what's happening over there.
War always takes its toll on a small town, said Bristow native Louis Harding, a veteran of World War II and Korea.
He remembers the major troop deployments in both wars that turned thriving Oklahoma communities into ghost towns seemingly overnight. He knows the same thing could happen again.
"We accepted it, of course," recalls Harding, 81. "We really didn't know what we were getting into."