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Charlie Battery update: Three months to go

Five Charlie Battery soldiers with Morris-area ties talked about their deployment in Kuwait and Iraq and how the time before they return home is drawing near. From left are Spc. Adam Gorecki, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Burns, Spc. Andrew Loher, Spc. Jon Dittbenner and Sgt. First Class Doug Anderson. Submitted photo.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Three months. That's all the time that remains before Morris-area residents will welcome home National Guard soldiers of Charlie Battery.

The soldiers are deployed in Kuwait and carry out convoy security missions in Iraq. They are scheduled to end their year-long deployment in a little more than three months.

Five soldiers of the 1-151st Charlie Battery with area connections spoke recently about their assignment, their lives during active duty and their appreciation for the support of people back home.

Doug Anderson, Jeremy Burns, John Dittbenner, Adam Gorecki and Andrew Loher are among 105 soldiers from Morris and Ortonville areas comprising the Charlie Battery, and they are among 560 151st soldiers headquartered at Camp Virginia in Kuwait.

As of Jan. 15, the Charlie Battery soldiers have been on active duty nine months, and are about a year removed from the official announcement of their deployment. They left Morris in April 2009, trained at Fort Hood, Texas, and arrived in Kuwait in July. They expect to be home in April.

"We hope it won't be longer and we pray every day it'll be shorter," Anderson said.

The soldiers' mission is convoy support mostly for military entering or leaving Iraq. They travel in MRAP -- Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, said Dittbenner, who travels with Gorecki. It's not easy traveling, he said.

"It's like driving a dumptruck," Dittbenner said. "They're top-heavy and hard to maneuver on the road."

Burns said the military convoys typically consist of five to seven semis and about 30 trucks carrying containers of equipment and other material.

The missions can last a few days or a couple of weeks, with 15 days being the longest, he said.

Anderson and Burns deployed with Charlie Company in 2004 and 2005. The contrast between their first mission and today are sharp.

During their first deployment, the Charlie Company troops were stationed in the middle of Baghdad, in the Green Zone, working at a hospital and then supporting small convoys, Burns said.

"Then we traveled in only three vehicles in metropolitan traffic," Burns said. "Now, we're in five to six mile convoys, traveling three to eight hours at night."

The responsibility for security also is shifting, he said.

"There are a lot more Iraqi Army and police around that you didn't see before," Burns said.

The soldiers are somewhat secluded at Camp Virginia, which is about two hours from Kuwait City. While some travel into the city for various reasons, there's little interaction with the local population, and it's mostly by design, Anderson said.

"Our missions are mostly at night and we try to stay out of the Iraqi people's way," Anderson said. We had a lot more interaction with people last time. We try to be on the road like we do back at home. We don't go out like 'This is our road, get out of our way.' We follow a share-the-road policy."

Burns said he could only speak for his squad, but they haven't encountered much enemy activity. Mostly the problems are maintenance issues, such as flat tires.

Once back from a mission, Loher said, the soldiers keep busy prepping their equipment and working on details of future missions. They also have recreational facilities, including a gym, basketball court, TV room and computer and phone centers.

"We have a lot to keep us busy," Loher said.

There's constant turnover at the camp, which also helps to keep things from getting mundane. For example, depending on who's coming and going, the base might be home to as few as about 500 soldiers or it may swell to 3,000, Anderson said.

"One day there are no lines in the chow hall, and next day you're waiting a long time," he said.

Many of the soldiers were deployed previously, which has helped them and first-timers this time, Anderson said.

"We have guys who have been through it," he said. "Last time, we had two guys who had been deployed before. We had no idea what we were getting into. We knew we got leave, but we didn't know how it worked. This time, we knew what we were getting into. The experience gained the last time has really helped us this time."

Anderson said he's anxiously awaiting his two-week leave. The soldiers began taking leave in October, and there are 10 "leave groups." Leave group eight is up next, and Anderson is in the 10th group.

"You keep track -- there goes leave group three, there goes four," he said. "It makes the time go faster."

Loher said leaves are big benefits, not only for reconnecting the soldiers with family and friends, but by keeping things fresh once back in camp.

"It keeps us going," Loher said. "It gives us more stories to talk about when we get back."

All five soldiers expressed their gratitude to family, friends, the Family Readiness Group and other organizations and people who keep them in mind. School children and churches have sent letters and care packages.

"The community outpouring has been tremendous," Gorecki said.

Anderson said Family Readiness Group coordinators Tom and Barb Hesse and Lisa Cox have been invaluable in helping families and soldiers during their deployment.

"They've made it a mission of theirs to take care of our families at home," Anderson said. "We can never say enough about what they do."

Telephones, the Internet and communication technology have made it possible for the soldiers to communicate regularly with family and friends. But there's nothing that can compare to stepping off a bus, with spring in the air, and into the arms of loved ones.

To make the time between now and then move faster, the Charlie Battery soldiers concentrate only on the task at hand.

"We say here that every mission is your first mission; you're only as good as your last mission," Anderson said. "We only focus on the next hurdle."