Ark. 39th Infantry Brigade to return stateside

Published 3:02 pm Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Infantry Brigade begin returning home from Iraq Tuesday night, signaling the end of the unit’s second deployment to Iraq.

The first contingent will have about 160 soldiers, with the rest of the more than 3,000 soldiers arriving over the coming weeks to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss.

There are no deployments scheduled for Arkansas Guard troops in 2009, which will give the state time to assess the health and size of its force. It will be the first year since 1996 that Arkansas has not deployed troops overseas.

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“We’re out of (the mobilization) business for a while,” Col. Keith Klemmer told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper.

The challenge for Klemmer and the rest of Arkansas’ Joint Force Headquarters-Forward is twofold: They must return non-39th soldiers to their home units while trying to ensure that all of the soldiers report any medical problems they have and that those problems are properly treated.

Maj. Gen. Bill Wofford, Arkansas’ adjutant general, issued a memorandum in September urging all those returning to seek the help they need.

“I am very concerned about the second- and third-order effects the Global War on Terror has placed on our soldiers and airmen as they have mobilized and endured traumatic events,” Wofford wrote. “Many of our soldiers and airmen may hesitate to seek professional counseling because they are concerned about the potential stigma associated with being treated by a mental health provider or other health provider or other health care professionals. … I want every soldier and airman to understand that it is my intent that seeking and obtaining medical assistance of any kind will not result in repercussions or be held against them when competing for assignments, schooling and promotion opportunities.”

There is little the Arkansas team can do to make returning soldiers report problems. However, Col. Ed Boland, commander of Camp Shelby’s medical facility, told the Arkansas team that his soldiers will be “singing the same song” by telling returning soldiers that if they were hurt on active duty, they need to stay on active duty.

“All I can really do is beg,” he said.

In late 2003, the brigade was sent to Iraq, where members served until early 2005. During that deployment, 16 Arkansas members of the brigade were killed. After the first Iraq deployment, some members of the brigade helped out on border missions in New Mexico and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina before receiving orders for a second deployment.