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Return of 142nd may be delayed

North Dakota's Army National Guard commander said Tuesday he hopes to hear soon if the state's Guard and Reserve soldiers will spend a full year in Iraq.

North Dakota's Army National Guard commander said Tuesday he hopes to hear soon if the state's Guard and Reserve soldiers will spend a full year in Iraq.

About 800 soldiers from the Fargo-based 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion and Bismarck-based 957th Multi-Role Bridge Company are in Iraq.

Most assumed they would serve a one-year tour of duty starting with their mobilization date, said Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, North Dakota's adjutant general.

Members of the 142nd were activated Jan. 24 and received training at Fort Carson, Colo. The 957th was mobilized Feb. 10.

The 142nd didn't arrive in Iraq until April, partly because of delays caused by Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. forces to open a northern front against Iraq, Haugen said.

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Tuesday, The Associated Press reported the Army was telling National Guard and Reserve troops in Iraq they will be there a full 12 months.

Although it came as a surprise to many soldiers, Haugen said the mobilization orders said they would be activated for a year, with the potential for that period to be extended to 24 months.

"This is not something that was just sprung on them," he said. "But nobody was planning it."

An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Tom Rheinlander, told the AP a message was delivered to all troops in Iraq in recent days clarifying that both active duty and reserve units will serve 12 months in the country.

Haugen said Tuesday he hadn't received a specific return date for members of the 142nd or 957th.

"This is a broad, over-arching policy, but it's not specific by unit," he said. "And they will give us that (information), hopefully soon."

The decision of whether troops stay in Iraq or return home lies with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the coalition forces land component, Haugen said.

The 142nd is a heavy construction unit, sporting an array of bulldozers, dump trucks and loaders being used to rebuild post-war Iraq.

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"They have a lot of equipment that is unique to them," Haugen said.

The multi-role 957th also is valuable to the Army because when it's not building bridges, its trucks can be used to haul everything from food to spare parts, he said.

Tracey Slaaen, president of the family support group at 142nd headquarters in Fargo, said she always knew there was a chance her husband, Sgt. Scott Slaaen, and the rest of the 142nd would be activated until January 2004.

"If it comes down to the fact that they are extended to April, I think at that point we -- including myself -- will need to figure out how we're are going to deal with that," she said.

The group will continue to support families whose loved ones left their civilian jobs to fulfill their duties overseas, Slaaen said.

"It's going to be tough on the children, too, to tell them dad's not coming home in a year, or mom's not coming home in a year," she said.

Nicole Rustad, a mother of two and full-time student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said she was "appalled and angry" to learn her husband, Philip, and the rest of the 142nd may have to stay in Iraq until April when they were told they'd be home by Christmas.

"The National Guard and Reserve troops will be staying longer than the active duty soldiers, and that's unacceptable," she said.

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Haugen said his office will inform families of the revised length of deployment as soon as he finds out.

"I will also tell them that what their families are doing is important, and I think they need to decide whether they want to fight terrorism in Iraq or whether you want to fight it in Fargo," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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