The 3,700 Louisiana National Guard members in Iraq will begin heading home within about a week as part of normal troop rotations, but there are no mass Guard movements back to the United States planned to aid hurricane relief, U.S. military officials in Baghdad said Thursday.
"Everyone we have here, and every piece of equipment we have here, is needed here," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, senior spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Exceptions will be made on a case-by-case humanitarian basis to allow Guard members whose families have been hit especially hard by Hurricane Katrina to return, Lynch said.
With thousands of National Guard troops serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Guard retaining fewer members at home, officials in the United States have acknowledged that the scale of the destruction along the Gulf Coast is stretching their stateside manpower. Wisconsin agreed Wednesday to send 500 Guard troops to Louisiana to help make up for the shortfall.
After nearly a year in Baghdad, Louisiana's 256th Mechanized Infantry Brigade is due to return fully to the United States by November, military officials said.
A National Guard brigade from Mississippi, the other state hit hardest by Katrina, has served since January in the region south of Baghdad.
The area was known in 2004 as the Triangle of Death, because of the frequency of insurgent attacks there.
The Iraq deployments have taken more than a third of the Guard members of both states, officials said.
Military officials here acknowledged that the Louisiana Guard members faced the prospect of returning from draining, dangerous duty in Iraq and launching quickly into a hurricane relief effort that is expected to last months.
The first Louisiana Guard members are expected to return "within a week or so," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, another U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Their availability for disaster relief would be at the discretion of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Boylan told the Associated Press.
Louisiana Guard members in Baghdad were trading news on their home towns and their families, sharing it by word of mouth as soon as they received it, said 1st Sgt. Errol Williams, whose home is just outside New Orleans. Word was reaching Guard members by Red Cross messages, and by Internet and cell phones when the state of communications in storm-devastated Louisiana and war-devastated Baghdad allowed, Williams said.
Williams said his wife evacuated to North Carolina ahead of Katrina with their 10-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. The rest of his family found shelter with relatives in Texas, he said.
Word from neighbors in Louisiana led Williams to believe he had about four feet of water in his home, he said. But a Web camera in his wife's temporary storm home enabled him to wave to his children on Wednesday night, he said.
The 3-year-old is "ready for daddy to come home," Williams said Thursday night in Baghdad, "wherever home is."