Guard Troops Wait For Deployment Word

Saturday, April 7th 2007, 3:02 pm
By: News On 6

PAWHUSKA, Okla. (AP) Most days, Earl Smith is the Army National Guard in this rural town of a few thousand, looking after a half-empty armory that's scheduled to close in a couple years because of military downsizing.

Smith also sits on the school board here, one of many towns whose fortunes fell when the oil boom went bust years ago.

He is thinking about retirement after 35 years with the military, but those thoughts will have to wait. The 53-year-old sergeant first class is preparing to take about two dozen soldiers from this armory into Iraq next year on a security mission.

They are among 13,000 National Guard troops in Oklahoma, Indiana, Arkansas and an as-yet unspecified state expected to be notified soon they could be sent to Iraq around the first of next year, military officials say.

Today, members of Smith's unit work at car dealerships, construction sites and factories. One is recently unemployed.

This time next year, they could be in a desert half a world away from their home towns, behind the wheel of an armored vehicle or manning a .50-caliber machine gun.

In January, the 45th Infantry Brigade -- 3,500 National Guard soldiers strong -- was picked for possible deployment sometime next year.

Oklahoma, which has lost two National Guard soldiers since 2003, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was among four states selected for the mission and Pawhuska among the dozens of towns in the state where units of the 45th are based. The National Guard has not disclosed the names of the other three states.

If the orders stand, it would be the largest mobilization of Oklahoma soldiers since the old 45th Infantry Division was called up for the Korean War.

In the meantime, the soldiers and their loved ones make the most of the time they have stateside.

"Last time, it was not a problem," says Barbara Smith, Earl's wife. "This time ..." Her voice trails off. A few minutes later, Earl pulls up in a tan Humvee outside the Chamber of Commerce, where she works.

In 2004, Smith took most of his soldiers on a seven-month security mission to Afghanistan. He brought them all back.

Barbara knows Iraq is a different animal.

Press him on the matter, and Earl will tell you that he's lucky because he's one mission shy of retirement; that Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who backs President Bush's troop surge -- is a man of his word and that he has a wife who understands why he's away.

But are we winning over there?

"I think we're holding our own," Smith says, standing later in the armory's dimly lit vehicle hangar. "The war in Germany was over in 1945 and we're still in Germany; we're still in Korea."

When he was in Afghanistan, Daniel Gonzalez -- "Gonzo" to his unit -- only had to fire his weapon once, squeezing off three warning rounds at a car hauling propane tanks that got too close to the convoy he was protecting.

He expects to see more action in Iraq.

"It seems the more people we send over there, the more violent they get," says Gonzalez, 27, who installs glasswork in commercial buildings. "Right now, they're looking at us like we're the scum of the earth."

Andrew Armstrong, a 36-year-old iron worker who's been in the guard about 16 years, said the not knowing has everybody on edge. But leaving his family and his job for at least a year is part of his duty.

"Somebody's gotta do it," he says.

Folks here, like they do in many small towns, support the troops. But as the U.S. death toll mounts in Iraq, some here find themselves questioning the mission and why more of their employees, school board members and Little League coaches are going over there.

"Seems like all we've done is spend a bunch of money and got a bunch of people hurt," says Pawhuska resident Jerry Slinkard, who works in construction.

Leaning on the tailgate of a pickup, Slinkard shoots the breeze with two buddies outside The Greek's, a popular cafe on the main drag of this town 60 miles northwest of Tulsa.

Between dips of chewing tobacco, they use the word "Vietnam" to describe what's happening over there.

Whether for or against, war takes its toll on a small town. Always has, says Bristow native Louis Harding, a veteran of World War II and Korea.

He remembers the major troop deployments in both wars that turned thriving Oklahoma communities into ghost towns seemingly overnight. He knows the same thing could happen again.

"We accepted it, of course," recalls Harding, 81. "We really didn't know what we were getting into."