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A December, 2004 reprint: Honoring a Guardsman’s request

In February 2004 I wrote a column upbraiding the national planners for exploiting the National Guard in conducting the war in Iraq. I argued that continuous life-threatening duty was not in the deal made by all of the Guard men and women, but that many of them joined up as a means of financing their higher education.

They had bargained for weekend training and emergency duty, such as fighting floods, policing events and serving as a community resource, but not extended months of combat.

For choosing Guard service as the price for their education, I noted, young people were being exposed daily to roadside bombs, rocket attacks and sniper fire. And even though they were being exploited, they heroically answered the call to duty in the face of an unjust assignment.

This February column found its way to Iraq and several months later I received a lengthy letter from one of the Guardsmen confirming the comments I had made.

“I hope you don’t forget about us because your writing can help people realize the reality of the situation,” he wrote in his first paragraph.

Then he went on to explain he had a dream of going to college and was enticed to join the Guard because of its promise to help finance his education.

When he enlisted, he explained, the major emphasis of the recruiter was on college education. Nothing was said about the possibility of war, let alone deployment in an optional pre-emptive action halfway around the world.

He was assigned to travelling up and down the highways to locate roadside bombs. It was a dangerous mission and the equipment was inadequate. Instead of an armored vehicle, he was assigned a heavy gravel truck insulated with boxes of sand. Not only was he in constant danger of running over bombs but he was a ready target for snipers along the road.

“I told my family and friends nothing about what I do,” he wrote. “I don’t want to worry them because to me that is the worse part -having loved ones worried about us.”

When he was eligible to take leave, he declined. “We knew everyone wasn’t going to get leave so I figured I was young with no girlfriend or real need to go home,” he explained. “So I volunteered not to go so someone else would have the opportunity.”

With Guardsmen facing a prolonged threat to life and limb and a denial of certain benefits, it is no wonder that his July (2004) letter reflected a sense of betrayal and abandonment.

For the Guard, service in Iraq has not improved since his July letter. The danger appears to be greater as insurgents continue roadside bombing and sniping. Tours of duty have been extended time and again; pressure tactics have been used to force re-enlistments, and troops have not been allowed to leave when their enlistments were up.

As for my July correspondent, he will not be taking advantage of that college he was promised. Spec. Cody Wentz of Williston was killed in Iraq a few weeks ago.

(Update: Here we are 15 years later, remembering a young North Dakotan who lost his life in a warzone that is just as bad today as the day of November 4, 2004 when he died. Lives are cheap, especially when they are somebody else’s. Peacemaking is better than sword rattling but we seem to keep making the same mistakes, generation after generation.)

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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