For some troops, a gift of the Fourth of July at home

Kelsey Mire can locate Iraq on a globe. It took some practice, but the 5-year-old has it down. First, she finds her home state of Louisiana, then slowly twists the globe to the left, tracing her finger over a big white blob - the Pacific Ocean - and past a patchwork of shapes until she finds Iraq nestled half a world away from this Cajun country.

"That's where my daddy's going," she says, having found it proudly. "He's going to Iraq to make the whole world safe."

When her father, National Guardsman John Paul Mire, learned of his brigade's deployment this spring, he brought the globe home so Kelsey would always know where he was. But thanks to the citizens of his home state, Lieutenant Mire will have one more opportunity to see his family before being shipped overseas for 18 months.

Taking part in "Operation Independence Day," Louisiana residents donated over $300,000 so that these 3,000 soldiers could come home from Fort Hood, Texas, where they've been training for several months. The troops were recently granted leave over the July Fourth holiday and, while many could afford the trip, many could not. Now, anyone who wants to return can - and that's about 99 percent of them.

The outpouring of support - initiated by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco - comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans are questioning America's presence in Iraq. More than a year after war started, just when many thought American involvement would be winding down, the US is calling up reinforcements. And with this week's announcement that the Army will call up 5,600 previously discharged soldiers, there's a keener awareness of just how deeply the US is engaged - and of a national ambivalence that may only grow. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly referred to the soldiers as "not on active duty" rather than "previously discharged."]

Yet in this land of swamps and shrimp gumbo, that ambivalence is largely absent. The most important thing now, say residents, is to support their troops: Louisiana has more soldiers in the National Guard per capita - and more now deployed in the war effort - than any other state.

"Everybody knows somebody who's in the National Guard," says Mire's wife, Heather.

The soldiers don't expect everyone to agree with the mission, but they say support is critical to their jobs. "There are a lot of questions about our involvement in Iraq," says Sgt. Clinton Bond. "So to learn that Louisiana broke its back to help us means so much to us. It put tears in our eyes."

Still, he won't be coming home for the long weekend. "Saying goodbye again would be too hard," he says. His wife is being deployed with the same brigade, and Hunter, their 8-month-old is with his mother, Cathy.

The chubby toddler crawls under his grandmother's feet as Cathy explains how she's taken time off work to look after Hunter. "I'm just enjoying being a grandmother. Motherhood comes back to you pretty quick - although he's a lot heavier than I remember my two babies being."

By the time the Bonds return, Hunter will be 2 years old, and will probably have taken his first step, spoken his first words, and started potty training. He most likely won't recognize his parents' faces.

"The whole scenario is really unnatural," says Cathy. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have doubts about what we're doing over there. I mean, if you have to sit down with your child and make out a will, you begin to question. Part of me says we should get out of there and tell [Iraqis] to deal with their own problems." She scoops up Hunter, checks his diaper, and heads for the changing table. "I might feel that way, but I don't want to hear it from anybody else," she adds.

Many families say they're just as sensitive to criticism of the military effort as the soldiers themselves. Ms. Mire, for one, would never have spoken up in support before her husband deployed. But now, she's outwardly protective of him and his comrades.

The two were newly engaged last year when the war broke out, and they got the news of his activation the day they returned home from their honeymoon this spring. "I kept thinking it wasn't going to happen," she says. "The first Gulf War ended so quickly, so I thought this situation would end just as quickly."

For his six-day return, she and her stepdaughter, Kelsey, are planning a backyard crawfish boil, a trip to the zoo, and plenty of time with friends and family.

While residents raised the money, they will let soldiers alone once they're here. No parades or ceremonies are planned - and soldiers say that's how they want it.

Ashley Necaise's husband, Ben, plans to stay at home until it's time to board the bus. "He says that if anybody wants to see him, they are going to have to come to his house," says Ms. Necaise, cradling her 2-year-old, Lauren, who occasionally raises her head to blurt out, "Mine, mine, mine."

Right now, Necaise can't watch the news: The images frighten her too much. "But that may change once Ben is in Iraq. I may be glued to the television for any glimpse of [him]."

A teary-eyed Ashley says this Fourth of July is special, almost sacred. She now grasps the importance of sacrifices so many generations made to keep this country free.

"Growing up, I was pretty much a brat who took everything for granted," she says. "But after Sept. 11, a kid, two cars, and an activation, I finally understand what Fourth of July means."

For his part, Lt. Jeffrey Adams, a senior at Louisiana State University, says he has friends who disagree with the war, and some who protest it. "But they don't understand that we are fighting so that they can say whatever they want."

He'll return home early Friday on one of the 53 buses paid for by residents of his home state.

"I could be politically correct and say how proud I am to be an American this Fourth of July," he says after a long day of training. "But these six days off could have come during Halloween for all I care. I just want to see my family, my friends, and my girlfriend. I have a feeling they are going to be the quickest six days of my life."

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