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Oregon National Guard: The Price of Duty

July 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


LEE HOCHBERG: The sorrow seemed interminable last month in Oregon. Burying war dead is always agonizing, but Oregon’s grief in June was unlike any the state has suffered in 60 years. (Bagpipes playing) Four of its army national guardsmen were killed, nine days apart in violent ambushes in Iraq– the worst loss for the Oregon guard in one place since World War II.

In April, 700 Oregonians with the Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, were sent to Baghdad to fill army troop shortages. 24-year-old specialist Eric McKinley was on patrol when a roadside bomb blew up his armored humvee June 13. At a public ceremony in his hometown of Corvallis, he was remembered as a private citizen.

SPOKESMAN: I know that this young man, who would give you the shirt off his back, is now in the presence of God, showing off his best skateboard moves.

LEE HOCHBERG: In addition to attending McKinley’s funeral, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, commander-in-chief of the Oregon guard, traveled to three other guard funerals last month. (Gunfire) (trumpet playing “taps”) Sgt. Justin Eyerly, age 23, of Salem, Oregon, had studied graphic design before being deployed. (Bagpipes playing) Specialist Justin Linden, age 23, had managed a restaurant in Portland, but wanted to be an actor. And 25-year-old first lieutenant Erik McCrae of Portland was a mechanical engineer who had graduated college in two years with degrees in math and physics.

Eight other Oregon guardsmen sustained serious injuries in the last month. A total of 27 Oregon soldiers from all branches of the service have died in Iraq, but this month’s casualties have the governor questioning whether guardsmen should be sent to such dangerous places.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI, Oregon: They are now being deployed not just to a theater where there is great risk because there is a war going on, but they are going as regular front- line ground troops in that war. I think that when 40 percent of the troops that end up on the ground in a combat situation are guards troops, I think you better look at the manpower issue on a much broader level. (Playing John Lennon’s “Imagine”)

LEE HOCHBERG: At Eric McKinley’s service, speakers noted the Oregon guard had been chosen to serve because of its high level of military performance and readiness. The Alpine Bakery was closed later that afternoon, as owner Viki Taylor mourned McKinley’s death. She says he had worked at the bakery for two years before he deployed to Iraq.

VIKI TAYLOR, Bakery Owner: Erik was a kind, gentle, person. I never once heard, “Well, you know, I want to go into war; I want to go into combat.” That’s not who he was. He was serving us here in Oregon. And, like I said, I don’t think that he expected to go farther than that.

LEE HOCHBERG: She says he was expected home to Corvallis weeks before the ambush occurred. His six-year tour of duty with the guard was to have ended April 1. But his stay was extended under the army’s stop loss program; 25,000 guards have been affected because of manpower shortages.

VIKI TAYLOR: He was going to come back here and continue his bake shift. He was coming home. He was going to be here to bake. We were going to see him every day, just like we always did.

LEE HOCHBERG: McKinley’s death prompted an angry editorial from Oregon’s largest newspaper, the “Oregonian,” chastising the stop loss program. “He had done his duty,” the paper wrote. “Requiring soldiers to fight – and die – on forced overtime is no way to run an all-volunteer Army.” “…the loss that Oregonians want stopped is their own.” Oregon’s governor agrees.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: It’s a manpower issue, and I think if we continue to use this… what I would call sort of like a postage stamp approach to it by sticking this up and trying to plug all the holes, this is not good for the country.

LEE HOCHBERG: Military leaders say stop loss is needed to keep guard units intact, and keep experienced soldiers in the service. Col. Douglas Pritt, McKinley’s commander, says most guard hitches are no more than a year, and many guards want to stay the extra time.

COL. DOUGLAS PRITT: I think probably on a daily basis, Eric looked forward to coming home and being at the bakery. But at the same time, I believe, based on the reports that I received, he believed in what he was doing, and he was excited about that contribution that he was making. You know, I certainly regret that Eric lost his life, and if there were anything I could do to bring him back, I would do that. But I don’t believe stop loss is to blame for that. (Marching band plays)

LEE HOCHBERG: On the heels of the four deaths, 400 additional guardsmen from rural eastern Oregon were called up for duty in Iraq. They were part of a mobilization of more than 4,000 guardsmen from seven states.

SPOKESMAN: As we sense the support of our community today, give us, oh Lord, your spirit of power.

LEE HOCHBERG: Lt. Col. Dan McCabe, who will command the battalion, said he’s been sobered by the deaths.

LT. COL. DAN McCABE: You know, when I looked out over those men, and then I think about some of the fatalities that have occurred in the last months, for me it’s really visceral. You see some of your fellow guardsmen from your state end up becoming casualties of war; I think you wouldn’t be a human being if it didn’t shake you.

LEE HOCHBERG: The governor has attended all the deployments, as well as the funerals.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI: There’s no denying that you are going on a very dangerous mission. I will pray for your swift and safe return.

SPOKESMAN: Left face! (Cheers and applause)

LEE HOCHBERG: There was anxiety at the farewell picnic.

SGT. CHRIS GIBSON: Mixed emotions, you know. I’m scared. Obviously I’m scared. I think if you go over there and you’re not just a little scared, then there’s probably something wrong with you.

LEE HOCHBERG: The issue of when they would return was on everyone’s mind, including Sgt. Duane Amundson and a son whose tenth birthday is this month.

STAFF SGT. DUANE AMUNDSON: I don’t know exactly when we’re coming back. They gave us a time zone, but whether they get to keep that… because you’ve seen people being kept over there, so you have to say that you don’t know. Soon as I find out, we’ll… they’ll let you know in the newspaper, I guess.

LEE HOCHBERG: Just the same, most of the guardsmen said they’re taking on the job proudly.

SPECIALIST JEFF GILL: You know, the fact is, you’re in the military, and protecting the country is what you do.

SPOKESMAN: It says “U.S. Army” right there. It doesn’t matter… doesn’t matter National Guard, Reserve, active duty. It’s “U.S. Army” right there, and that’s how I see it. That’s how I’ve always seen it.

SPOKESMAN: Everybody on the bus!

LEE HOCHBERG: Guard officials acknowledge more Oregon deaths are likely, as the number of Oregon guards in Iraq swells to 1,300 by fall.