Military

North Dakota Guard Returns Home

National Guard Bureau News

Release Date: 5/4/2004

By Sgt. 1st Class Tom Roberts

Bismarck, ND - Families and entire communities had maintained a constant vigil since a cold morning in January 2003 when 170 North Dakota Army National Guard soldiers departed in a convoy for Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., 1,000 miles away. The members of the 957th Multi-Role Bridge Company ultimately went to Iraq.

Prayers, care packages, thousands of letters and e-mails as well as news clippings and photos were the glue that held the families, communities, and soldiers together for more than a year until they could all be together again.

That happened in Bismarck on April 18, 2004, when the 170 citizen-soldiers were welcomed back as heroes by 3,500 people at the Raymond J. Bohn Armory.

I was as happy as everyone else to see them return because these soldiers became my friends. I embedded with this unit and traveled with it from Fort Leonard Wood to Kuwait and then north to Iraq. The soldiers "adopted" me and two other journalists to document their journey.

They became part of my life. Even though I left Iraq in late May, my thoughts and prayers were with them for the entire time they remained in that war-torn land. The news that three of them died and that four more were wounded tore at my heart. I knew my friends with whom I had trained, eaten and slept were also hurting.

I also knew they would maintain their resolve to complete their assigned combat missions and return to their families and friends in Bismarck.

The news that the 957th soldiers were coming home was received with enthusiasm. A homecoming was planned to welcome them home and ensure that they were reunited with their families as quickly as possible.

The anticipation grew in Bismarck as word spread that the unit had left Kuwait. Local media people and officials from the North Dakota National Guard's Joint Forces Headquarters met the 957th soldiers when they arrived at Fort Leonard Wood. "Out-processing and paperwork was completed at Fort Leonard Wood so that when the soldiers stepped off the chartered plane here in Bismarck they could meet their families and go home to be reunited as quickly as possible," explained Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, North Dakota's adjutant general.

A local radio station reported the plane's arrival at the Bismarck airport live to the throng waiting at the armory. The plane's approach, touchdown and taxi were broadcast play-by-play, like an exciting sports event, and the cheers of the crowd shook the armory. People waiting in their vehicles at the end of the runway flashed their headlights on cue from the radio announcer. Electricity was flowing through the entire community. The 957th was home and emotions ran high.

The soldiers' return came off with clockwork precision. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, U.S. Congressman Earl Pomeroy and Haugen greeted the soldiers as they came off the plane.

Four buses carried the entire company along a six-mile route through the city. Banners and throngs of local residents welcomed the soldiers home and expressed North Dakota's thanks along the way.

Everyone in the armory roared their approval at the word that the buses had arrived. Native American drums beat with a steady rhythm as the soldiers streamed in through four entrances.

Families and soldiers were reunited and the emotional homecoming was underway. There were no formal programs or presentations. The main focus was to get the soldiers and their families reunited as quickly as possible so they could resume their lives.

As my friends and fellow National Guard soldiers left the armory with their loved ones and duffel bags, it was truly one of those moments that made it clear why we do what we do. The sacrifices and dedication of these soldiers and their families inspired the city of Bismarck and all of North Dakota. But three families weren't with their soldiers. And never would be.

Donny Ladwig walked off the plane that evening. His brother-in-law, Spc. Jon Fettig, 30, of Dickinson, was killed in combat in Iraq in July of 2003.

Shortly after Ladwig exited the plane, Robert Smette stepped off, trying to hold back the tears. His brother, Sgt. Keith Smette, 25, of Makoti, was killed in combat Jan. 24. Robert Smette had returned to North Dakota to be a pallbearer at his brother's funeral. He flew down to Fort Leonard Wood to welcome his unit home April 13.

Staff Sgt. Kenneth Hendrickson, 41, of Bismarck, died in the same explosion that killed Smette. These men won't be forgotten.

Four others -- Sgt. Shaun Aarhus, Sgt. Brett Heinen, Sgt. Brandon Erickson and Spc. Jonathan Sigl, all from Bismarck -- were wounded in action. Their sacrifices will be long remembered.

I truly believed that these National Guard soldiers exemplify the spirit and finest qualities of our nation.



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