By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana Army National Guard members in Havre and Chinook spent the weekend settling in at home after returning from Iraq. They arrived in Kalispell on Thursday and celebrated there before coming home.
Spc. Frank English was greeted warmly, surrounded by family and friends.
"It's awesome," he said Sunday. "I'm trying to do everything all at once."
English said he had fun at the Kalispell celebration, but it was his mother, Dixie English, who was moved to tears.
Dixie English said it looked like everybody in Kalispell had turned out for the parade.
"It was beautiful. Everybody was in tears," said Dixie, who works at the Havre Daily News. "They lined the streets."
Back with his family, Frank English had time to reflect on his year and three days in Iraq.
The hardest moments, he said, were when he was closest to coming home, first before returning on leave in August, and again in February, waiting for 20 days in Kuwait before coming back to the United States.
English and the 20 other Guard members who returned home belong to the 443rd Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants Company, based in Billings, with detachments in Havre and Chinook. Rather than mobilizing that company, the Montana Army National Guard used its members to fill vacancies in the Kalispell 639th Quartermaster Company when it was activated at the end of 2003, said Sgt. Tony English, Frank's father. Tony English is in charge of the Chinook and Havre armories.
Frank was with the Kalispell company in October when it took over a supply mission refused by members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company based in Rock Hill, S.C. Those members complained of inadequate armor on their vehicles, and their refusal made headlines across the United States.
English and his fellow guard members made that supply trip from Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah to Taji north of Baghdad. He said the people who had refused the mission probably overreacted, but said that for the most part the supply trucks were not armored. The trucks received fire from hand-held weapons on many occasions, and supply convoys were faced with the danger of roadside bombs. There were "lots of scary moments," he said.
English said nobody from the Kalispell company suffered more than minor injuries. In the time he was there, he added, he saw the situation in Iraq improve, both for the Iraqis and the Americans.
"I made all kinds of friends" among the Iraqis, he said. English plans to keep in touch with one man who has access to e-mail.
English's term of service will end in September, when he plans to seek a discharge from the Guard after 12 years of service.
"We basically got drafted," he said. Most Guard members he knew did not want to go to Iraq, he added.
"I was positive on the way over there," Frank said, "But I don't like getting bossed around." The southern portion of Iraq is full of "brass," he said, and he knew Guard members who asked for more dangerous assignments to be a little further out of the reach of the bureaucrats.
Bill Fitzpatrick spent the weekend at home with his wife and three children after returning from Iraq.
He came home with a fractured wrist, a soccer injury he suffered while passing the time in Kuwait before being sent home. Because of the injury, Fitzpatrick said he will need to spend a month or two in Fort Carson, the last step before seeking a discharge. Fitzpatrick has logged 22 years of service with the Guard and is eligible for discharge.
Thinking about the time he spent in Iraq, Fitzpatrick is not fazed.
"We had a little bit of tense stuff, but not compared to what I heard was going on in Baghdad," he said.
Life is getting a little better for Americans stationed in Iraq, he said. When he arrived, he slept on a cot in a tent. Fitzpatrick, who is 47, said it was not a comfortable way of life. While he was there, he and his fellow soldiers were given bunks, and he said soldiers there will soon have barracks to sleep in.
Fitzpatrick is a janitor for Havre Public Schools, and plans to go back to work as soon as he has finished his service.
Tony English said soldiers who have just returned home are excused from weekend drills for 90 days. They will be paid for their time if they do decide to attend drill. They are also excused from two-week summer drills for six months. According to the U.S. military's stop-loss policy, Guard members cannot be discharged for 90 days after their return from Iraq, he said.
After 181 days or more of service, a Guard member has 90 days to contact his or her employer about returning to work. Soldiers who contact their employers in that amount of time are protected under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and should be reinstated in the position they left or the position they would have held, had they not left.