Ready for duty

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LEWISTON – If the call comes to go to war, Pfc. Sarah Ziehm figures she’s ready.

The 22-year-old college student and newly minted Army mechanic keeps her birth certificate with her passport, just in case she has to leave fast. She listens to the president’s speeches and reads the news. She keeps a list in her mind of the people she’ll say goodbye to if the call comes.

“I think about it every day,” said Ziehm, who belongs to the Maine National Guard. “I’m concerned.”

But duty – for her and for others – will overshadow concern.

“I joined at a time of war,” said Ziehm, a petite blond. To imagine that somebody would let her stay out of harm’s way – because she’s young and a woman – would be deluded.

“That’s just not reality,” she said.

On Wednesday, President George Bush announced his plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq by 21,500.

The new troop level, intended to overwhelm insurgents in places such as Baghdad, will be accomplished by keeping some units in Iraq longer than planned and sending in other troops earlier than scheduled.

To the Maine Army National Guard, the surge will have little effect, said commander Gen. Bill Libby.

People such as Ziehm, who has yet to serve in Iraq, are likely to be called to active duty, he said.

That’s the nature of wartime enlistments.

“You knew that when you raised your right hand and took the oath,” Libby said.

However, with a growing number of men and women in the Maine Guard having already served in Iraq, few units are even available.

Pentagon policy prohibits guard and reserve soldiers from being ordered to serve on active duty for more than 24 months in the war. The few remaining months on the average 15- or 16-month deployment prevent people from being called up again.

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

Platoon Sgt. Gary O’Connell of Lewiston won’t.

A nearly 27-year veteran of the Guard, O’Connell serves with the 133rd Engineer Battalion’s Charlie Company.

He went to Iraq and believes he’s prepared to go back if ordered.

“It would be an honor,” O’Connell said.

Like Ziehm, he watches the news. But he does it alone, without either his wife or his children watching.

It’s the same request he made of them during his nearly year-long service in Iraq.

He doesn’t want them to worry.

Ziehm said she, too, worries about her family getting upset.

Her parents fought her enlistment, convincing her to wait rather than signing up immediately after her 2002 graduation at Edward Little High School in Auburn.

“My mom and dad begged me not to,” she said.

Many of her friends went, though.

When they returned after the early days of the war, few shared their stories, she said. Many told her they did not want to go. It had little effect on Ziehm.

“I’m a spontaneous, go-do-it person,” she said. “I’m not really afraid of too much.”

A student at Central Maine Community College, she met a recruiter at a school job fair last spring and left for basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., on June 28.

She finished her training as a mechanic in time to return home on Thanksgiving. She has been assigned to O’Connell’s company.

She believes her call is inevitable.

Soldiers have told her that mechanics are in particular demand, right now. It’s something she witnessed as her school fast-tracked her training. The Army condensed her class from 12 weeks to eight.

The hardest part is saying goodbye to people,” she said.

“I have no fear of going over there,” Ziehm said. “It’s not that I love war. I just really do love my country.”

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