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Family Readiness Group There 'Every Step of the Way'

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2005 – For a unit the size of the 652nd Engineer Company - - only 176 soldiers -- losing one soldier in combat is tragic enough.

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Army Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley, commander of the 88th Regional Readiness Command, Fort Snelling, Minn., pins an award on Molly Fisher, co-leader for the 652nd Engineer Company's Family Readiness Group. The group, made up of volunteer spouses and family members, was among seven honored at the Pentagon Feb. 18 during the 2004 Reserve Family Readiness Awards. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

But losing four comrades was especially difficult for Army 1st Sgt. Michael Barnhardt, whose Army Reserve unit has its headquarters in Ellsworth, Wis., arrived in Iraq in April 2003.

"Every first sergeant makes a promise to himself that the people you take over, you're going to bring home," he said. "We got hit hard, so it hurts. We took it hard, we took a lot of hits."

In July of that year, just three months into the 652nd's deployment, one soldier was killed in an ambush.

Then, tragically, two more were killed on Christmas Day. "They were talking to family over the Internet when a mortar hit," Barnhardt said.

A fourth soldier was killed in another ambush just five days before the unit was to deploy back home in April 2004. During the unit's yearlong deployment, 20 other soldiers would receive Purple Hearts for injuries received in combat.

"It was an emotional time for us throughout," Barnhardt explained. "We were up and down emotionally."

But not only was it tough dealing with the tragedy in theater, Barnhardt said he also worried about the families back home, especially the families of those soldiers killed.

"You have to get over the fact that a lot of it's out of your control," he said.

That may have been the case for the soldiers in Iraq, but back at home the situation was much in control -- of the family readiness group.

Many people "in the rear" were working to help ease the first sergeant's worries. The unit's family readiness group was already helping the families of the fallen soldiers deal with their losses.

"It was like they wrapped their arms around us," Barndhart said.

Toni Kasparek, the unit's family readiness group leader, was one of the people who reached out to embrace the unit. Her husband, Army Capt. Dean Kasparek, is the unit's commander.

To help comfort families, Kasparek said, many in her group went to the funerals, brought food, and sent Christmas cards and flowers.

"It was a real challenge for us," she said. "The first casualty caught us by surprise, it opened our eyes. We were thinking the war was over and they were just doing support missions; we were so shocked."

"It just brought everybody to the reality that they are really in a dangerous situation," she added.

When the 652nd first mobilized in February 2003, dozens of family readiness group volunteers helped welcome new soldiers in the unit by distributing welcome packets and helping take care of pre-deployment family issues. The group also helped family members get identification cards and get their military benefits started.

A "telephone tree" was created with important phone numbers for where to call for help and so family members could stay in contact.

During the unit's deployment, about 25 members of the group held monthly meetings, met for picnics, and marched in parades. They also met with a Congress member from their district.

Kasparek said the group's activities were a way of supporting each other and helping family members connect with their feelings.

"No one else knows what it's like to have your husband in combat but another wife or a mother or sister," she said. "The family readiness group can be a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen to their issues and their stories. To a certain extent you become a sounding board for the problems spouses are experiencing."

During a Feb. 18 Pentagon ceremony in which several Guard and Reserve family readiness groups were honored for their service, the 652nd among them, Army Brig. Gen. Michael Beasley, commander of the 88th Regional Readiness Command at Fort Snelling, Minn., praised the unit's family readiness group for its support to families, especially those who lost loved ones.

Beasley, who has more than 400 Guard and Reserve units over six states under his command, said the 652nd's family readiness team "stood by every step of the way" during the unit's most tragic moments.

"They maintained communication, and they maintained a caring nurturing attitude towards all of the families including some the unit's extended families," he said. "They never tired; they were always the backbone of the unit; and through extraordinary hardship they stood with the deployed unit (as closely) as any organization I have ever seen."

Said Beasley, "You just can't fight effectively if you are worried about what's happening on the home front. And the family readiness group is essential to providing that security of knowing that your family is taken care of."

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