ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — As Pfc. Andrew Waldron would say — or, rather, as he would sing — it’s “The Final Countdown.”
Waldron, 26, of Richfield, Minn., has sung the song by the Swedish band Europe to amuse and annoy his friends on every patrol they’ve done in the farmlands on the western edge of Baghdad. As of the end of April, that was 425 patrols and counting.
Waldron and the soldiers with Outlaw Platoon, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 136th Minnesota National Guard are nearing the end of a 22-month deployment. From six months of training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi to an extended 15-month tour in Iraq, they’ve been away from home since October 2005. They are supposed to head home late this summer.
Overall, the Minnesota National Guard has been deployed to Iraq longer than any other military unit — active, Guard or Reserves, The New York Times reported last month.
“If you’re going to be here a long time, you might as well be here the longest,” said 1st Lt. Stewart Whitson, 26, of Minneapolis, the platoon’s commander.
They’ve been away so long that life in Iraq and at Camp Liberty has become home, the only routine they can remember. Their normalcy is war: patrolling through muck and sweat, working unending weeks, watching newly deployed soldiers get lost in the chow hall. Their commanding unit has switched three times during their stint in Iraq. Other soldiers have come and gone, and the Outlaws are still here.
As their time ends, they face a mission just as complicated — going home.
“You don’t really miss home anymore,” said Spc. Christopher Timp, 21, of Freeport, Minn. “It’s just second nature to be here. I don’t know how I could go back to how I lived.”
As a unit, they have been back to Minnesota only once — two weeks at Christmas in 2005. Before deploying in March 2006, they got a four-day pass. Since then, they’ve each taken their two weeks’ leave from Iraq. All that happened months ago, well before the Army extended deployments to 15 months.
“To think of home, you have to think of 2005,” said Spc. Brandon Pajari, 21, of Alexandria, Minn.
Some have to think of 2003, when the platoon was called up for a year to serve in Kosovo. That stretch should have given them a reprieve from this Iraq deployment. But many in the Guard, a group whose hometowns and memories weave together outside of war, refused to stay behind.
“It’s hard to sit at home and watch everybody else come over here,” said Sgt. Aaron Rousselange, 22, of Long Prairie, Minn., who served in Kosovo and has been gone from home the past three out of four years.
“You’d feel like a [expletive]-bag if you were sitting at home playing PlayStation and somebody over here got killed," he said.
Read the whole article at Stars & Stripes.
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Update, 10 June: Soldier's Dad - who always knows best on stuff like this - points out in comments that there are reserve units which have served longer than the 34th in Iraq. Those units include Cival/Affairs units which have served 2 years. Impressive. Thanks, SD.