Minnesota National Guard mission in Iraq extended

Digging in for a longer stay
American soldiers fill sand bags at Camp Ramadi in Ramadi, Iraq. While military officials say they have reduced the number of insurgent attacks in Ramadi in recent months, U.S. forces in the area continue to suffer casualties on a daily basis.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

About 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops will be staying in Iraq longer than they expected.

The Minnesota soldiers in the 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry Division, were supposed to come home in March after a year-long deployment, but they will stay longer as part of the president's plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Guard didn't immediately know the duration of the extended duty.

National Guard commander
Minnesota's National Guard Commander, Gen. Larry Shellito.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"The Minnesota National Guard is disappointed with the impact of this extension on our citizen-soldiers, families, employers and the communities they serve," said Gen. Larry Shellito, the commander of the Minnesota Guard.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a news release that he was "extremely disappointed and frustrated" that Minnesota troops may have their tour of duty extended.

"This decision by federal officials is not consistent with the expectation or understanding provided to our soldiers," he said. "It's unfair to them and their families." The news is a blow to family members of Minnesota Guard soldiers.

Joan Najbar of Duluth says she and other people with family members in Iraq are concerned the war's escalation could delay their welcome home parties.

"Everybody is on pins and needles wondering if their loved one will come back in April when they are supposed to," she said.

This decision by federal officials is not consistent with the expectation or understanding provided to our soldiers. It's unfair to them and their families.

Najbar has a son who is currently patrolling Baghdad. She's a long-time critic of the war and doesn't think a surge in troops will stabilize the country.

Najbar says she talks to her son on a regular basis but wouldn't provide any details on his feelings about the war. Najbar says the president's plan has generated a lot of interest.

"This is what the families are talking about right now," she said. "This is a real possibility. Right now, the Minnesota National Guard are a part of the only mobilized infantry Guard presence in Iraq right now. So they could very possibly be extended or sent back."

The 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team have been in Iraq since March. Several Guard members in Iraq have speculated on their blog sites that they will be asked to stay longer.

Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard, says state commanders are "disappointed" in the deployment extensions, but said he expected the state to "rally around its citizen soldiers.

Perry Knetter of East Roseau says he has mixed feelings about an extended deployment for his son. He says his son, Charles, is a Guard member serving in Fallujah.

Knetter says he fully supports President Bush's decision to send more troops to the region. He says he'd like to see his son in Minnesota as soon as possible, but understands that he's on a military mission.

"He'll do what it takes to keep the country free. Everybody forgets 9/11. And, like Chuck says, we lose more lives every day by drunk drivers on the highway than we do with soldiers in Iraq to protect this country. We have a lot of freedom we take for granted over here," Knetter said.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota DFL Party criticized President Bush's plan for sending more troops to Iraq. Chairman Brian Melendez said Minnesota's Guard and Reserve units are already overstretched.

Nineteen DFLers in the Minnesota Senate have signed a petition calling for no further escalation of the war in Iraq.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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