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The Miami Herald June 24, 2004

State Guard unit gets its second call to Iraq

Soldiers of the Army National Guard's 144th Transportation Company from North Florida will go to Iraq for the second time.

By Phil Long

Their lives have been disrupted by the military for the second time in a year, and their mission is one of the war's most dangerous.

About 130 truck drivers and their crews from the Florida National Guard's 144th Transportation Company have been mobilized for the second time since the Iraqi war began. The soldiers, based in this Panhandle town, are about to begin training at Fort Bragg, N.C., before going to Iraq later this summer.

''It was a shocker,'' said Callie Johnson, of Miami, whose husband, William, has been called up again. ''I thought it could be possible again, but you really don't think it will happen.''

This is the first Florida National Guard unit to be called up twice during a war that has grown increasingly dangerous and where many soldiers' tours of duty have been extended.

William Johnson worked full time at a prison in North Florida and was attending night school for a class he needed to transfer to Miami with his wife, who had just been promoted to a job at Dade Correctional Institution. He had to quit the class.

He's not happy about the second call-up. ''But you have to do what you have to do,'' said Johnson, echoing the views of many other soldiers in the 144th. ''You've made an obligation and you've got to fulfill it.''

The 144th was called up last year but wasn't sent to Iraq. Instead, members spent nearly five months hauling freight from Fort Stewart, Ga., to nearby Hunter Army Airfield and the Savannah seaport.

The soldiers were sent home, only to be surprised by a recall notice in May.

Many families worry that Iraq is more dangerous now.

''Convoys have been one of the prime targets of insurgents,'' said Francois Boo, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that tracks space, security and military issues.

DANGERS OF WAR

''There are only a finite number of routes convoys can use to move around in Iraq,'' Boo said. The insurgents need only lay a couple of bombs at the side of the road and wait, he said.

The heavy reliance on reserves and National Guard troops -- about 37,000 out of 160,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is ''certainly not going to stop until things start settling down and security improves,'' Boo said.

The call-up has also put the lives of John Wesley Scheetz and his fiancee, Michelle Litchfield, on hold for the second time in a year.

As Scheetz leaned out of a mammoth green Army wrecker he took to Fort Bragg, his mother, Peggy, hopped up on the running board and into his outstretched arms. She hugged him and told him one last time: ''Goodbye, be careful and come back to me.''

On the ground a few feet away, his father, Frank, watched with pride and pain. He recently retired after serving as a sergeant in the 144th for 23 years. Many of these soldiers were once in his charge. He wouldn't mind going to Iraq himself.

His advice to his son: ''Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to your sergeant.''

Like many people in this area, he wishes the Army had called on soldiers who had not yet seen service.

''Let's look around and find some other units that haven't had to say goodbye twice, now,'' the elder Scheetz said.

For the Scheetz family, whose youngest member, Travis, 20, committed suicide earlier this month, John Wesley's departure has been particularly difficult.

''You bury one son Sunday and watch the other one pull out to go to war on Wednesday,'' Frank Scheetz said. ''It's rough.''

The departure was difficult for John Wesley Scheetz as well.

''It's very tough. I hate to leave my mother and father in this predicament, but I just want to do something for our country,'' said Scheetz, 22, a mechanic in the Guard and a garden-center worker at the town's new Wal-Mart.

If there's a bright side, it will be that his fiancee, a truck driver in the 144th and a Wal-Mart pharmacy clerk, will be with him.

Litchfield is among 10 soldiers from the unit who went to Iraq with another outfit and learned the latest tactics for staying alive in convoys.

'DIFFICULT SITUATION'

''It is a difficult situation, difficult for their families, but we are confident they are going to do well,'' said Assistant Adjutant General Michael Fleming.

''They were called because they are well trained and the Army needs them.''

Apprehension within the 144th is pervasive.

''It's scary. We are one of the main targets,'' Tabitha Melacon, a nursing student and single mother of two, said as she stood guard outside the armory with her M-16 rifle.

The disruption of her life ''is more frustrating than anything else,'' she said. ''But you've got to do it.''


Copyright 2004, The Miami Herald