Guard duty leaves families to wonder

October 05, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Bethanie Slonaker and Glen Bivens got engaged last year while he was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., with the West Virginia Army National Guard's 157th Unit.

After a yearlong assignment triggered by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, Bivens came home to Inwood, W.Va., and the two began making wedding plans. They envisioned their dream wedding at Cacapon State Park. They set a date of Aug. 9.

He was home for only five months when another call came. This time, Bivens, 24, would be going to Iraq with the Martinsburg, W.Va.-based military police unit.


Slonaker hasn't seen her fianc since Valentine's Day.

"It's very frustrating and difficult. You think you're getting started in life ...," the 22-year-old Slonaker said. "Our wedding date has come and passed."

Meanwhile, she and other family members still don't know when the 98 absent guardsmen are coming home.

On Sept. 24, family members questioned West Virginia National Guard Adjutant Gen. Allen Tackett, who was unable to give them any answers.

Slonaker said she has been told the unit will learn its return date in mid- to late-October.

But it doesn't look good.

The Army recently decided to extend the amount of time that troops can spend overseas from nine months to one year, said Maj. Charles Kohler, spokesman for the Maryland National Guard. When you take into account the time it takes to prepare and then wind down from the mobilization, it's an 18-month activation, he said.

Maj. Michael Cadle, spokesman for the West Virginia National Guard, said the family members' questions will not be answered overnight.

Guard and reserve units across the country are bracing for even more call-ups. Unless the United States can persuade other nations to contribute troops for security duty, thousands more could be put on alert within weeks, a top Pentagon general said.

"We're ready. The guys are just doing their training and trying to stay as prepared as they can," said Capt. Cory Angell of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Cadle said the guard is less concerned about future call-ups than it is about making sure those who are deployed now get home safely.

"Right now our focus is when are they coming home. Our primary concern is when are those folks who are mobilized going to come home," he said.

About 560 serving

In the Tri-State area, about 560 members of the Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia National Guards have been activated to serve in the war on terrorism.

Some are playing a role in Homeland Security. Nearly 50 members of the 729th Forward Support Battalion out of Hagerstown are guarding Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., Kohler said.

Other units, such as the 157th, are overseas.

The West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg has about 350 people on active duty, said Col. Roger Sencindiver. That includes the flying squadron, aircraft maintenance workers and air medevac troops.

But the deployments should get easier now that teams of air guardsmen have been assigned to spend 45 days at a time in the Gulf region. That way, family members will know how long their loved one will be gone, he said.

Besides the toll it takes on families, the absence of the citizen soldiers can be felt in the workplace.

Police agencies and the prison complex south of Hagerstown are among the local employers most affected by the call-ups.

"I'm sure every employer is feeling the effects of this because of the length of time they're losing their people," Sencindiver said. "We depend upon the employers and the community for their support."

At the Washington County Sheriff's Department, 1st Sgt. Bob Leatherman is one of two reservists who could be called to duty. If that happens, it would fall to someone else on staff to fill the gaps in scheduling the department's 70 sworn officers.

Scheduling can be a challenge, even now with only one deputy out of the mix due to the war, Leatherman said.

"We're only allocated so much manpower and you can't hire anyone in the interim," he said. "Losing one is something we don't like to do."

So far, Leatherman has been able to cover the absent deputy's shifts without using overtime. Some deputies might not be able to get leave when they request.

"There's a shift running one man short; that affects everybody," he said.

Leatherman has served in the Maryland National Guard for 21 years without being called to active duty, but he is prepared for the possibility.

"You know what the responsibility is whenever you take your oath. You're a soldier first, so if your unit calls you, you have to go," he said.

Sheriff Charles Mades said he sympathizes with the families of guard members.

"The scary part is when these guys come back they're not going to sign up anymore," he said.

Troopers on duty

At the Maryland State Police barrack in Hagerstown, two troopers have been called up for military duty, said 1st Sgt. Rick Narron.

That, combined with three troopers who retired this summer, made for some creative scheduling. No overtime was required, he said.

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