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Army Focuses on Families’ Needs in Light of Unit Extension in Iraq

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 28, 2006 –

As members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team begin to accept news that their deployment in Iraq will be extended for up to four months, the Army is working to ensure their families at home in Alaska are taken care of.
 
Two family assistance centers -- one at Fort Wainwright and one at Fort Richardson -- will open their doors tomorrow to help families who were awaiting their loved ones’ returns deal with the issues they now face, Maj. Kirk Gohlke, public affairs officer for U.S. Army, Alaska, told American Forces Press Service.
 
The Defense Department announced the unit’s extension yesterday, based on a recommendation of Army Gen. George Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Forces Iraq.
 
The announcement came two days after President Bush and Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, agreed to send more U.S. and Iraqi troops to Baghdad to try to curb sectarian violence there. “You have a security challenge that has emerged in Baghdad that General Casey, along with the Iraqi government, has said that we need to address,” Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told reporters today.
 
The extension will temporarily boost the U.S. presence in Iraq from 15 brigade combat teams to 16, Whitman said.
 
Rumors about a possible extension had been circulating around the post, based on press reports. But Gholke said it wasn’t until the night of July 26, when the brigade commander delivered the news personally from Iraq, that representatives of family readiness groups learned the decision had been made.
 
Army Col. Michael Shields, commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, told the families during a 90-minute videoconference he understands their disappointment and acknowledges the hardship the extension will cause.
 
“He committed to them whatever resources he could to help with any hardships they face,” Gholke said.
 
“We all know what an incredible disappointment this is to the families and soldiers,” Gholke said. The unit was preparing for its redeployment, and almost 400 soldiers had already returned to Fort Wainwright when the extension was announced.
 
In addition to their emotional setbacks, the affected families face a whole range of other, individual issues as well, he said. Gholke rattled off some examples: “What will this do to my move date? What about my school date? I was going to get married, so what do I do now? My family was coming to see me after my redeployment, and bought non-refundable airline tickets. So what do I do now?”
 
Staffs at the new family assistance centers to open in Alaska, as well as the brigade’s rear detachment, will help families address these and other issues, Gholke said. “Basically, what we are telling them is, if you have an issue related to the extension that you need help resolving, go to the centers and they will help you,” he said.
 
U.S. Army, Alaska, is also working to get word of the extension out to other family members not at the post or connected to it through its family support network.
 
Taking care of family members is the best way to help the deployed soldiers deal with the extension, Gohlke said. “The best thing we can do for soldiers is to let them know things are OK here,” he said. “That way, they can focus on getting the job done so they can come home.”
 
As disappointing as yesterday’s news was to the unit, Gholke said there’s also a sense of pride that Casey and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld selected them for an important job in Iraq.
 
“The soldiers are extremely proud of what they have done, and that they were chosen for this mission,” he said. “This brigade has shown that’s adaptable and that it can turn on a dime. We’re extremely proud of our unit.”
 
Whitman called the 172nd’s extension an example of what defense officials have stated all along: Force strength in Iraq will reflect conditions on the ground and the commander’s recommendations.
 
“Obviously, General Casey felt that this would be the best unit to extend based on the experience of its soldiers, the capabilities, the equipment, the mobility, the protection that a unit that’s equipped with Strykers has,” he said. “And what you are seeing is a flexible and adaptable force based on those changing dynamic conditions that are now being addressed by the application of addition Iraqi and U.S. forces.”

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