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.
But shortly after Christmas, as friends and families counted the days until the planned March 28 homecoming, word came that the tour would be extended four months to support the effort to fortify Baghdad, a strategy designed to tip the balance against the insurgency.
News of the extension, which the families first heard about on television, was a rough blow. One wife likened it to nearing the end of a marathon and learning she would have to run eight more miles uphill. Another forgot that she had set her cellphone to ring on March 28, a cheerful reminder that her husband was homeward bound. When the alarm sounded, she called a friend and cursed: "Damn alarms."A New Father, Far Away
In Thief River Falls, Alicia Tanner's father recently set up the crib for her baby, due July 12. Before the extension, that would have been a job for her husband, Sgt. Marshall Tanner. He petitioned to leave Iraq a few weeks early to attend the birth but has received no answer.
"I'm just hoping to get there," Marshall, 24, said by telephone from Iraq. "We were together in high school. Through basic training, my deployment to Bosnia. She's done a lot for me."
They were married in 2005, two months before he deployed; she bought a house while Bravo Company was in Fallujah, navigating complexities compounded by distance and war. It was a nightmare, she said. One misaddressed set of documents went to Iraq and back without finding Marshall.
On settlement day, the lenders made him call Thief River Falls. "He had to call the armory," Alicia said, "and the armory had to type up a paper saying he was alive."
When she learned she was pregnant, she told him over the phone.
"I try to get him involved, but it's hard because he's not here," said Alicia, 23. "I send him pictures of my belly, and we did a videoconference so he can see. That's about all I can do. Every time he gets home, I just think about the next time he's going to leave me."Returning Means Starting Over
Sgt. 1st Class David Lymburner made his living hanging signs and awnings in Alexandria, Minn. He kept the business running during his Balkans deployment, which lasted about nine months, mostly during Minnesota's winter. But the long Iraq mission has been another story.
As his 2005 departure date neared, he realized it would not be fair to ask his 72-year-old father to take over, nor could he ask his workers to hang on without him. With no other options, he closed up shop. Other businesses moved in to sop up demand, meaning Lymburner will have to start over when he returns. He remains determined, but back problems that cut short his Iraq mission are another obstacle.
"I sell a product that when people need it, they are not willing to wait, so loyalty is hard to establish," Lymburner, 39, wrote in an e-mail from Fort Gordon, Ga., where he was recuperating from back surgery. "As far as finding new employees, I am sure it will take years to replace the quality of workers that I had to let go."
Farther north, not far from the Canadian border, Corey Stusynski found someone to run his rural Karlstad paint store while he was driving a Humvee in Iraq. Business has been steady, and the work is waiting for him. Friends also stepped into his teaching shoes at St. Edwards Catholic Church.
The deployment has been hardest on his girlfriend and their two boys, ages 8 and 11. There are days when the kids have trouble in school and she just needs a break. They talk once a week and e-mail, but the boys miss their soldier and he misses them back.
Lately, as the weather has turned, Stusynski has been thinking of baseball: "There's stuff I should be doing with them, and I'm not there."A Long-Distance Coach
Capt. Chip Rankin leads Bravo Company, but his passions in civilian life run to teaching and coaching. He chaired the science department at Litchfield High School and took the wrestling team to its first state title in 2003. Then came the mobilization, which meant turning over his students and his wrestlers to fill-ins.
Coach and team labored to stay connected, aided by computer and satellite technology unthinkable a war or two ago. Rankin watched two Litchfield matches in a special webcam link, and to fire up the team for the sectional championships, he gave them a long-distance pep talk by telephone. One by one, he told the athletes what they had done to make him proud.
No matter what, things have not been the same, said Jeremy Forster, a senior heavyweight who thrived on the way Rankin drove him, relentlessly, to improve.
"It always felt as though something wasn't there," Forster said. Expecting his coach to return in March, midway through his final season, Forster worked extra hard "to show him how much I'd changed." Then he learned that he would graduate before Rankin made it back.
Late this summer, in the space of a few weeks, Rankin will go from commanding troops in Iraq to teaching high school biology. "It will be a heck of a transition," said Principal Mike Goodrum, who said there is no room for a longer absence.
"We need him back here," Goodrum said. "We can't put someone in for another six months' leave, and because of tight budgets, we can't afford to have two teachers."Many Shoulders to Lean On
Susan Kay is a deejay at KBRF radio in Fergus Falls. Before Bravo Company deployed, she broadcast from a hotel rooftop and raised $23,000 to help local soldiers and their families. Each soldier received $200 toward a ticket home from Mississippi, where the unit was training. Other money helped pay for care packages and the needs of families at home.
"When you do projects in this town, you don't have to worry, because people will step up and fill in," Kay said. Not long ago, a garage offered free oil changes to the 32 National Guard spouses and a supermarket gave them $10 credits. A meatball supper at Christmas produced $9,000 to send packages to Iraq with such favorites as DVDs and Leatherman tools.
Stories of neighbors pitching in abound: guys installing flooring for a deployed soldier; an Elks Lodge team roofing a soldier's house; friends shoveling the deep Minnesota snow for the wife of an absent Guard member.
In the Minnesota brigade, there have been video marriages for couples who felt they could wait no longer. And last month there was a joint steak fry, held simultaneously in St. Paul and at Tallil Air Base. Sending enough to feed all comers, Twin Cities restaurants shipped 11,550 steaks to soldiers in the base's Camp Adder. With the help of a live satellite hook-up, families and soldiers dined together.
The response has largely been driven by an informal network of family support groups. Often, the most valuable contribution is a timely e-mail, an empathetic voice, a hug. Sometimes, the boost is more practical.
"Our first phone call was from a young lady who had a flat tire who didn't know what to do," said Crookston group leader Jamie Cassavant, grandmother of young Austin and mother of Corey, a member of Echo Company, which supports Bravo. A volunteer bailed the young woman out, just as others have fixed broken wells and finicky appliances.
The Crookston group recorded comments and good wishes during the town's Fourth of July parade, added a musical soundtrack and mailed the CDs to the soldiers. Another time, volunteers painted 60 wooden Christmas trees.
"We've become a family," Cassavant said. "This community has blown us out of the water with their support and their caring."An Early Homecoming
Some guardsmen, anxious about missing another planting season, recently petitioned to return home early. As Rankin put it: "You don't make any money if you don't get the crops in the ground. Right now we need them, so it's hard to let them go home."
Staff Sgt. Louis Karsnia had another reason to come back: His father, Mike, was in a bind. Advanced cancer was diagnosed in November, and the elder Karsnia put it plainly: "My business would've been down the crapper if he hadn't come home."
Mike Karsnia runs Sure Thing Software, a small firm that produces programs for charities that earn money through gambling. While his son was serving as a cavalry scout, the business managed well enough, but the cancer diagnosis upended the company and the family. Doctors recommended calling Louis home.
"I cried the day I left," said the 27-year-old sergeant, sipping a soda at the Fergus Falls VFW post, where this month he was installed in his father's former job as commander. "It was both tears of joy that I was coming home to see my family and tears of sadness that I was leaving my guys."
The day after arriving home, he reported to work.A Countdown Is Interrupted
Jennifer Modeen tries to keep her family on steady ground, but there is only so much she can do. She stopped delivery of the Grand Forks Herald because her 10-year-old daughter was reading about how many soldiers were dying. She arranged for a support group called Soldiers' Angels to send 4-year-old Sam a card during a particularly hard stretch.
Last winter, with her husband due home in 100 days, Modeen and the kids put 100 M&Ms in a jar. Every day, they took one out; as the pile got smaller, Staff Sgt. Nathan Modeen was closer to coming home. Sam was growing excited. Then came news of the 125-day extension.
Jennifer Modeen could hardly stand it: "We just threw the M&Ms away."