Scores of Mississippi National Guard troops in Iraq who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina have been refused even 15-day leaves to aid their displaced families, told by commanders there were too few U.S. troops in Iraq to spare them, according to members of the Mississippi Guard.
About 600 members of the Mississippi Guard's 155th Brigade Combat Team, posted south of Baghdad in the area known as the "Triangle of Death" for the frequency of insurgent attacks there, live in the parts of southern Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana hit hardest by Katrina, Maj. Neil F. Murphy Jr., a spokesman with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, said by e-mail Saturday. The brigade is attached to the Expeditionary Force.
Guard members and relatives said in e-mails or telephone interviews that virtually all of the roughly 300 soldiers of 155th Brigade's B and C companies had their homes destroyed or severely damaged in the hurricane.
Eighty Mississippi Guard members have been granted emergency leave, Murphy said.
The rest have been refused leave, told by their brigade command that all other forward operating bases "are tapped out and cannot send troops," one Mississippi Guard member wrote in an e-mail that was shared by a family member, with his permission, on condition of anonymity.
"All I know is that we are combat-ineffective due to the problems at home," wrote the Guard member, whose wife and young child escaped before their apartment building was washed away.
"We will start patrolling again soon so we have to get back out and try not to get blown up," the Guard member said. "We have served our country honorably for the last nine months and it is time for them to return the favor. That being said, let it be known that we are not trying to get out of duties, but we feel that we should be at home with our families doing what we were supposed to do."
"We are not trying to weasel our way home, we just need to help our loved ones," another member of the 155th wrote in an e-mail to a reporter.
In an e-mail, Lt. Col. William Glasgow, the brigade combat team's executive officer, said, "Soldiers who have been most affected by Hurricane Katrina will be allowed to return home on a 15-day emergency leave."
The 80 soldiers granted leave will depart their bases "over the next 2-3 days," Glasgow wrote. The brigade said it hoped to obtain longer leaves for some.
Roughly 78,000 National Guard troops are overseas, the vast majority of them in Iraq. Forty percent of the Mississippi National Guard's forces are in Iraq, including the 3,500 in the brigade combat team.
The unit was deployed in late January to the area around Iskandariyah, a region that includes several towns intensely hostile to the U.S. military presence. Roadside bombs, rockets and vehicle accidents have killed at least 10 Mississippi Guard members.
In Baghdad, the 2,500 Louisiana National Guard members in Iraq this week began moving to Kuwait, on their way home after finishing their tour of duty here. But the units from Mississippi, which include support and engineering units that normally would be used in disasters such as Katrina, have not completed their tour.
Murphy, the Marine spokesman, wrote: "We believe that the balance has been established to effectively manage both situations" in Iraq and at home. "We've been told that those that need to go home have been granted leave or are in the process of doing so." He wrote late Saturday that he was still investigating whether commanders had told Guard members that there were too few troops in Iraq to let them return.
With telephone connections in Iraq extremely limited, news of destruction in their home states has reached U.S. troops mostly over the Internet, via CNN and from death notices forwarded by the Red Cross.
More than a week after the storm, two men in the 155th still had not heard from their families, Murphy said. There was no word of any deaths among family members of the Mississippi Guard here.
Many of the wives and children of the men in B and C companies are now living in shelters or in homes of relatives, Lt. Col. John Rhodes said in an open letter to the families.
Affected Guard members were told last weekend that they would all be relieved of their duties and sent home to help families, a relative of the Guard member who lost his apartment said. Later, they were told that only men who had family members hurt or killed, or who owned homes that were destroyed, could go on short leaves, the Guard member told his relatives.