A Long Time Gone

Alicia Tanner's husband, National Guard Sgt. Marshall Tanner, went to Iraq in October 2005. He is not sure he will be home in time for the birth of their child, due in July.
Alicia Tanner's husband, National Guard Sgt. Marshall Tanner, went to Iraq in October 2005. He is not sure he will be home in time for the birth of their child, due in July. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Slevin
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 27, 2007

CROOKSTON, Minn. As often as he can, 6-year-old Austin Cassavant sits by his mother's computer and watches his father's face appear on the webcam from Iraq. On good days, sitting thousands of miles apart, they will tell stories and play tic-tac-toe.

Waiting for his father's return, Austin began writing down his thoughts on slips of paper and dropping them in a jar. No one knows what he writes.

"He and his dad can go through them," his grandmother said, "when he's home."

By the time winter gave way to spring, the Minnesota National Guard was supposed to be back from war. Austin's father, Sgt. 1st Class Corey Cassavant, would be fishing for walleye and bass and grilling his catch. Spec. Corey Stusynski would be behind the counter at his paint store and teaching Sunday school. Staff Sgt. Logan Wallace would be plowing the fields near Thief Lake.

But guard members from small towns such as Crookston, Goodridge and Fergus Falls are still patrolling Iraq, their tour extended by President Bush's troop buildup. When they finally return this summer, they will have been gone nearly two years, one of the longest stints of any guard unit since Sept. 11, 2001.

Their absence is evident in the parked pickup trucks and the vacant dining room chairs in communities across northern Minnesota. It is clear in the weariness of friends and relatives who are filling in. As the deployment stretches on, children study their fathers in pixelated images. Bosses juggle assignments. Mothers juggle everything.

"How can I articulate that the absence is constant?" asked Jennifer Modeen, a social worker and mother of 4-year-old Sam and 10-year-old Hannah. "It's not like one day I had plumbing that didn't work and I thought, 'Oh, God, what I am I going to do because my husband's not here?' It's not that. It's the missing of the Christmas parties, the birthdays, the sadness that Sam feels."

At one point in nearby Fargo, N.D., 15 of the police department's 125 sworn officers were serving Guard duty abroad. "We're always running shorthanded," said Lt. Pat Claus, "and to be even more shorthanded puts an added stress on us."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) described a "ripple effect across so many lives and walks of life. They're really strong people, but even the strongest among us get frustrated and discouraged at times."

Some 2,600 members of the Minnesota Guard are serving in Iraq, attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division. Most of the Minnesotans from the rural northern part of the state around Crookston are in Bravo Company, whose 141 men range in age from 20 to 47 and represent a cross section of the small-town Midwest. One in seven has a college degree. One in three is married.

The citizen-soldiers of Bravo Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, had been home 18 months from a tour in Bosnia and Kosovo when they mustered for war in October 2005. Reinforcing an active-duty Army stretched taut by a war longer and more ferocious than the White House expected, the Guard members checked out of their roles as students, farmers and workers.

Once deployed, they supported active-duty troops, largely in violent Anbar province, where the unit lost three soldiers to enemy explosives. After being granted two weeks' leave and plane tickets home last year, Bravo's soldiers returned to Iraq with the end of their mission in sight.

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