Reservists reflect on anxious call to duty

The guerrilla war in Iraq worries many of the 50,000 reservists and guardsmen mobilized this month.

New Hampshire Army National Guard Sgt. Philip Tirrell is no stranger to Iraq. He drove the trucks that supplied - and sometimes even raced ahead of - American tanks battling their way toward Basra in 1991.

But as his unit, the 744th Transportation Company, prepares to ship out for Iraq again, more than a decade later, Sergeant Tirrell and the 20 other veterans of Desert Storm in his unit are anxious that this tour of duty in the sands of the Middle East may be far worse.

Many of these part-time soldiers - used car salesmen, truck drivers, and, like Tirrell, firefighters in civilian life - are worried about an enemy they can't see, in a war that has none of the usual defined boundaries. "There's still an enemy, and it's an unknown enemy," says Tirrell, a father of three.

Their fears are shared by many of the more than 50,000 reservists and National Guard troops mobilized for duty this month to replace units now on the ground in Iraq. In a guerrilla war that doesn't discriminate between combat and support troops, they are in as much danger as the infantry on patrol.

From TV war to real war

It doesn't help that many of the soon-to-be warriors have been watching the hostilities unfold on television, in all their grim detail. This past weekend alone, three soldiers were killed when their convoys were attacked in separate incidents. Preliminary accounts indicate the bodies of two soldiers were mutilated after being dragged from a car near Mosul.

So along with pride and worries about the families and jobs they leave behind comes the inevitable concern about what lies ahead. From the cabins of the 744th's tractor trailers, the biggest worry is ambushes and road side bombs that kill American soldiers every week.

Six days after mobilization calls came earlier this month, the unit's 128 men and 12 women gather from around the state at the National Guard headquarters here. The armory looks like a high school gym. But inside are reminders that this isn't the senior prom. Underneath the basketball hoops, soldiers pickup dog tags and gas masks, update wills, and give DNA samples that will help identify them if they don't make it back. There's even a table where spouses who double as Mary Kay representatives sell baskets soldiers can pre-order to arrive on holidays and birthdays.

Their mobilization didn't come as a surprise. Though they are the first New Hampshire National Guard unit sent to Iraq this year, they were alerted for possible duty on, of all moments, Valentine's Day and monitored the war from home, aware they could soon be on television instead of the ones watching it.

But the alert was withdrawn after four months, and they reverted to their full-time civilian lives as prison guards, auto mechanics, car salesman, and masons. They range in experience from basic-training rookies to Sgt. Roger Gingrich, who will be deploying to his third war.

After 22 years of military service that began in Vietnam, Sergeant Gingrich could have avoided the call-up by retiring. Instead, in true patriotic fashion, he wanted to do what he could to make a difference. "I see those mass graves on television," says Gingrich, a truck driver, of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule. "If I can be a little part of making sure it doesn't happen again, I want to be there."

Today, the soldiers wear forest-green fatigues rather than desert camouflage. That doesn't surprise veterans in the unit who served in Desert Storm: They didn't get the desert fatigues last time until after the war had ended.

During their four months in Kuwait and Iraq, they transported everything from ammunition to Iraqi prisoners of war. The mission will be much the same this time around, though there is more uncertainty. "At least during Desert Storm, they were in the middle of war. Now it's ambushes and sniper attacks to watch for," says Vicki Pearson, whose husband Wayne is a specialist in the unit.

On Dec. 7, the guard members will head for Fort Drum in New York for several weeks of training before flying overseas sometime in February. For now, the soldiers are trying to spend as much time as they can with family and friends. Some are teaching their oldest kids how to use snow blowers. Others are celebrating Christmas early.

But who will take care of the farm?

Despite the intrusion of dangerous duty, Brig. Gen. John Weeden, the No. 2 ranking officer in the New Hampshire National Guard, says morale is "extremely high." Yet an uneasiness still gnaws at the soldiers. As a self-employed contractor, Specialist David Serrentino fears he won't have any work when he gets back. He worries about how his wife will care for their nine-month-old daughter and who will tend their 15-acre farm in Goshen, with its two cows, six pigs, and three dozen chickens.

Mr. Serrentino signed up with the National Guard last year thinking he'd be doing homeland security work. After six years as an active duty Marine Corps sniper, he says he'd spent enough time overseas. He didn't realize his truck-driving assignment could land him in a combat zone. "Bullets and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] do not discriminate," says Serrentino.

After the paper work is done, they march outside onto a muddy field and stand in formation. Capt. Mary Bergner pins insignias on newly promoted soldiers. "We're going to give 100 percent, and we're going to bring 100 percent back," she says. After dismissing the troops, she stops to reassure one other constituency. "We'll bring 'em back," she says to the soldiers' families. "We will."

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