They survived blinding sandstorms, suffocating heat, deadly ambushes and roadside bombs.
But five days before they were scheduled to leave Iraq and put the year’s heartache and hardship behind them, a company of Bay Area soldiers was defeated by an unlikely source: a phone call.
It came on a Thursday in late April. Unit members had turned in their weapons. Bags were packed. Jobs, families and vacations awaited them. Homecomings were planned, posters made, food ordered.
The Army reservists of the 341st Military Police Company out of San Jose were told to unpack. The Pentagon had extended their stay in Iraq by 120 days, the company’s second extension.
Now the resentment — and sense of betrayal — is building.
Sgt. Catrina Hernandez, 22, of South San Francisco, a member of the 341st, said in an e-mail from a military base in the heart of Iraq’s hot spot, the Sunni triangle, that the homecoming reversal was like “having your heart torn out, stomped on and then given back to you.”
“I am proud of my service in Iraq,” Hernandez wrote. “I’m proud to be a soldier and an American. I just wish that we were treated with fairness. We fight to keep America safe, yet when our service is done, we get stepped on.”
Interviews with soldiers in Iraq and their families back home also reveal rising anger and fear. There is a belief the soldiers are on a treacherous journey with no clear ending. And there are questions about the Pentagon’s increased reliance on “citizen soldiers” or “weekend warriors” such as those of the 341st.
Of the 20,000 troops who received orders to remain in Iraq for at least 90 days, about a quarter of them are in the National Guard or Army Reserve. These soldiers are serving in the largest and longest mobilization of reservists since World War II. Of the 764 total fatalities in Iraq as of Saturday, about 100 were citizen soldiers.
In the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom, reservists and National Guardsmen made up about 25 percent of troops in Iraq. Their number is expected to reach 40 percent by 2005. More than 7,800 Guardsmen and reservists from California are in Iraq.
The men and women of the 341st, whose stories have been told in The Chronicle since the unit’s activation in March 2003, say they will follow orders. But, unlike the active-duty troops in the regular Army, who also pay a heavy price during war, these citizen soldiers gave up their jobs and personal lives believing they’d be home after a traditional six-month mobilization.
The unit arrived in Iraq last May with 163 members and now has 145. Attrition came from illnesses, medical conditions and battlefield injuries. The unit has not had a fatality. The reservists originally were told they would be in Iraq for six months. Then they were told their service would be complete on April 10. Families had planned a grand homecoming in San Jose for April 26.
In an e-mail, Sgt. Joshua Clark, a 22-year-old from Sacramento, wrote that “all of us timed it just right, saying we will make it to this date.” Clark and others now wonder how long the luck and pluck that kept them alive can last. The unit faces its second summer in Iraq, a reality that makes Clark feel listless, like a spectator watching heat rise in the desert.
“We know that we could have been home this summer,” Clark wrote. “This meant heading back to school, returning to work and spending time with kids who are out of school for the summer.”
Clark added: “I know I cannot compare my time to others who have served in Vietnam and the world wars, so please don’t get me wrong. I will do my duty to the best of my ability. It is just hard in this day and age to be a reservist. We are frustrated because we served our time and did not complain. But there has to be an end to all the madness.”
The date for returning home was everything to the soldiers of the 341st. It was the face of a baby known only from photos; the joyful tears of a parent who jumped each time there was a knock on the door; the arms of a wife who smiled to the public but cried herself to sleep. It was a job, school, sigh of relief.
The date was the reason for working weeks at a time without a day off, navigating roadside bombs, and coping with civilian casualties. It was a finish line that was yanked just as the troops neared. In a way, it was the adrenaline that kept them alert, the amulet that kept them alive.
The reservists from the 341st are high school teachers, real estate agents, mechanics, computer technicians, students, firefighters, police officers, adventurers. They were stationed in Iraq at Camp Anaconda, between Baghdad and Tikrit, where unit members provided military and convoy escorts along supply routes.
“Most of us have become numb to the carnage we experience on an almost daily basis,” wrote Sgt. Koka Sexton, a 28-year-old from Concord who worked in software sales before deployment.
“I have been hit by numerous explosives along convoy routes and had to react to ambushes by men armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades,” Sexton wrote from Iraq. “I’ve had to tend to civilian contractors who had their vehicles ripped apart by roadside bombs and to collect the personal effects of the men that were not so fortunate.”
He said the unit that trained, lived and fought together for a year is now being split into four units. One is on patrol in Fallujah, he said.
Standing on the nail-biting sidelines are family members.
A town hall meeting was held recently in San Jose to bring military leaders and family members together. During two meetings lasting several hours each, relatives of soldiers in the 341st and the 211 Transportation Company —
whose duty also was extended — vented frustrations and sought answers.
The 341st and 211 are part of the 63rd Regional Support Command, which has control of 14,000 soldiers serving in 140 units in California, Arizona and Nevada. Maj. Gen. Robert Ostenberg, the top commander of the 63rd, listened patiently, smiled often, answered at length and didn’t break a sweat — despite the stifling heat and his starched military uniform.
The questions ranged from how to extend powers of attorney that have now expired to what to tell children about the mom or dad who was supposed to be home by now. There were questions about how the soldiers will vote if they are still in Iraq during elections and how to keep family businesses alive. There were military attorneys, chaplains and psychologists on hand.
“If the military can pull the plug on their departure five days before they’re supposed to come home, I don’t know what to tell my kids,” said Lori Fishburn, whose husband is Capt. Jay Fishburn, head of the 341st in Iraq. “My 10-year-old son says, ‘They got us all ready and then they didn’t let it happen. It was one big fat lie.’ ”
There was one question asked repeatedly and plaintively. It hung over the room long after the snacks and drinks were carted away.
“When is my son coming home?” asked a teary-eyed Myrna Wolfe, whose son Spc. William Wolfe, 20, is a member of the 341st. He is now on patrol around Fallujah. She views the homecoming reversal as a “slap in the face” and says the extensions have put the family’s lives on hold.
“I couldn’t have made it through this without my husband,” said Wolfe, wiping under her eyes.
“Originally, they were told they’d be gone six to seven months, then it was extended to one year,” Bill Wolfe said of the 341st. “His year was up. He was planning to go back to college. We had paid for a trip to Hawaii. Now our son says, ‘Don’t plan on seeing me until Christmas.’ ”
Maj. Gen. Ostenberg said he understands the families’ and soldiers’ frustrations. He explained that federal law allows the military to keep soldiers on involuntary active duty for up to
two years. But, he said, he will “keep the pressure” on his higher-ups to get his soldiers home.
“I was in the Vietnam War, and my duty was extended,” he said. “I empathize with the soldiers. I know the challenge they face, of keeping their mind focused.”
Ostenberg said his own mother coped in part by accepting the unpredictability of war. “My mother said, ‘We’ll see you when we see you.’ ”
Such stoicism has eluded Marjorie Carino, whose husband, Paulo, is serving with the 341st. She gave birth to their first child last May. Since then, her husband has spent 10 days at home.
“He’s missed almost everything with the baby,” Carino said from her home in San Jose. “She knows her daddy from his picture.”
Carino’s mother and father moved from Hawaii to help with their granddaughter. They know their daughter is suffering.
Carino tries to hide her tears. She wants to be strong. She knows her husband is doing the same.
“Whenever Paulo calls, he tells me the only thing keeping him sane is talking to me,” said Carino, who is 28 and working on a nursing degree. “We’ve been married for five years in December and we’re still in the love phase. I just want him around all the time.
“Every night I go to sleep holding the phone, praying he will call. My husband is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
E-mail Julian Guthrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.