Called up for the holidays, National Guard troops put their lives on hold again

Monday, December 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McHENRY, Ill. (AP) _ Before the war on terrorism, 21-year-old Mike Hart was a manager at Sam's Club who was studying to be a firefighter and planning to take his sweetheart to Hawaii for a marriage proposal.

Now he's packing his duffel bag to head off in the Illinois Army National Guard's largest overseas deployment since the Korean War. His job and his schooling are on hold indefinitely. And this past week his girlfriend gave him the bad news: She's not waiting for him.

The young man from this town of 20,000 near the Wisconsin border has mixed feelings about his assignment, as do others among the more than 1,500 Illinois guard troops from the 66th Infantry Brigade and their colleagues from National Guard units in Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Nebraska. He has been told to be ready to go south for two weeks of training on Jan. 5, and he expects to leave soon after for Germany to police an American air base.

``It's not a thing that I'm excited about, but it's a part of the uniform,'' Hart said.

Sitting at his parents' kitchen table and staring into the back lawn, he said, ``It'll keep my mind off of what's going on here. And I'll be making money.''

Sudden call-ups are part of what every National Guard soldier signs on for, and Maj. Gen. David Harris said his Illinois troops are ready for the challenge _ even if some aren't eager.

``They are ready to perform the mission,'' Harris said when the troops reported at a suburban Chicago armory for processing and equipment checks earlier this month. ``Many are excited. Others are being pulled from employers and school.''

One eager infantryman is Mark Chudoba, 36, of Roscoe. He's been with the National Guard for nearly two decades, and his wife is patient, if not happy about it.

``It's the right thing to do,'' Chudoba said. ``Everybody's got to put their time in.''

Brigade Chaplain James Johnson of Springfield has been through it before, too, in Kosovo and Bosnia. He and his wife keep in touch by e-mail. Overseas, he spends some of his time counseling other soldiers who have a harder time coping.

``It's rough on the younger soldiers that have marriages, and rough on their families back home,'' he said.

Lloyd Howen Jr., a 21-year-old Lake of the Woods police officer, is also engaged. He was called to duty just as his fiance was preparing to transfer from the University of Iowa to Northern Illinois University to be closer to him.

``You got to do what you got to do,'' is all he says of the deployment. ``I'm just glad we're getting to be home for the holidays.

But for some, like Hart, deployment can set off a chain of disruptions.

His mother worries about the breakup and she worries about her son's safety. When he enlisted four years ago, she said, she never thought he would be called overseas. Then he and many of his Illinois colleagues were called to Kuwait in 2000 to guard an air base. She thought that was dangerous enough, but now, with the threat of terrorists, the thought of him manning a machine gun at the gates of an air base worries her more.

``We're behind him 100 percent and we support him, but he's got younger sisters and they're very upset,'' she said.

Hart's father, John Hart, feels a mixture of pride and fear. He's a manager at defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and the Kuwaiti deployment earned his son a photo in the company newsletter.

``It's difficult because he has goals and plans for his life,'' he said.

That weighs on Hart, too. He expected to have his firefighting and EMT credentials next year, but now it will take at least two years.

Still, it's not those delays that show on his face as he sits in front of a Christmas tree and declares it's going to be a rotten holiday. He said the woman he wanted to propose to was the third to drop him while he was the property of the National Guard. The first checked out while he was at basic training. The second sent him a Dear John e-mail in Kuwait.

With two years left of his commitment, Hart said he still thinks his time in the National Guard has been a worthy learning experience _ just not a lifestyle he wants to continue much longer. ``I'll be serving my time that I signed up for,'' he said, ``and that's about it.''