Pentagon reverses decision

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LEWISTON – After years of soothing soldiers and their families with a “do-not-return rule” – telling Guard veterans they cannot be ordered to Iraq a second time – the Pentagon reversed itself Friday.

Now, each one of Maine’s nearly 2,000 National Guard soldiers is eligible for active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“At the top of no one’s Christmas list was a return,” said Adjutant Gen. Bill Libby, who leads the Maine Army National Guard. “But the ground rules have changed.”

Even before the news spread officially through the ranks, local soldiers said they were prepared.

No policy, especially one that prevents soldiers from fighting, is ever permanent, said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Richardson of the Lewiston-based Charlie Company of the 133rd Engineer Battalion.

“We expect to be deployed every four or five years,” said Richardson, who spent most of 2004 in Iraq with the rest of his Maine battalion.

Platoon Sgt. Gary O’Connell, also of Charlie Company, said he, too, is not surprised by the rule change.

Nor will he fret about it.

“I’ll worry about the things that I can control,” O’Connell, a nearly 27-year-veteran of the Guard, said Friday.

“I’m a professional soldier,” he said. “I go where they tell me to go. It’s that simple.”

And there has been no activation order, yet, for his company.

Another is not so lucky. Libby announced that Bangor’s medivac unit – C Company, 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment – has been placed on alert status.

The unit is due to go to the Middle East next January.

The 114 people in the company will be the first in Maine to be ordered back to war under the new rule, a rule that caught Libby by surprise.

Only one week ago, after the president’s announcement of a 21,500 surge of GIs and Marines in Iraq, Libby told Maine veterans to relax.

“If they don’t want to go back, they shouldn’t lose any sleep,” Libby said June 11.

That day, Libby was part of a teleconference with his counterparts across the country and Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Blum told them all that the long-standing policy, limiting soldiers to 24 months of ordered duty in Iraq, was still in effect.

Hours later, a more senior general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace, talked about rescinding the rule with Congress.

“I didn’t know what the correct message was,” said Libby, who has since complained about the conflict to Sens. Snowe and Collins.

On Friday, the message was clarified by David Chu, U.S. undersecretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness.

The 24-month cap was gone, Chu said, citing the need to spread “the burdens of war” more fairly and effectively among the U.S. military.

Libby shared the news of the rule changes and the Bangor call-up in a letter to the entire Maine National Guard on Friday.

“We tell them what we know when we know it,” he said.

Since the start of the war, about 1,800 Maine soldiers have served in the Middle East. Every deployable unit has gone.

Some of Friday’s news was good, Libby said. Within Chu’s statement was word that deployments would now be limited to 12 months.

It’s important because units have typically been activated for far longer.

For instance, when the 133rd went to Iraq, months were spent on active duty in upstate New York on training and briefings before they left. Though the soldiers spent just under a year in Iraq, a period soldiers refer to as “boots on the ground,” they were on active duty for about 17 months.

This means soldiers who are activated will spend less than a year in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“They’ll be home sooner,” Libby said.

New call-ups will also be made one year before they take effect, giving more time for advance training.

The period will also freeze unit rosters.

As each unit is activated, stop-loss rules will go into effect. During that period, enlistment contracts that might have let people leave the military before the date of deployment will be extended.

The notion frightens Spc. Greg Vaillancourt of Mechanic Falls.

The 29-year-old husband and father of two small boys, ages 1 and 5, is due to leave the Guard in July.

If he could, he’d leave today.

“I’d be done,” said Vaillancourt, who went to Iraq with the 133rd. “In my honest opinion, my family comes first.”

To go on another deployment would hurt his marriage and strain his relationship with his boys, he said.

“If I was single, I’d probably not complain,” he said.

Families will take it the hardest, Libby said. He said he can offer little advice for people like Vaillancourt.

“There is nothing I can say to them,” the general said. “When they go, we will attend to their families.”

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