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N.D. Guard has fewest soldiers overseas since 9/11

Since a Grand Forks-based unit returned recently from overseas, the North Dakota National Guard has the fewest soldiers and airmen deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001 ushered in a new age of U.S. military engagement.

A welcome home
A homecoming example from recent years: North Dakota National Guardman Kenny Kachena, Grand Forks, hugs his daughters Reilyn (left) and Peyton (right) after arriving home in Grand Forks after an eleven month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Herald file photo by John Stennes.

Since a Grand Forks-based unit returned recently from overseas, the North Dakota National Guard has the fewest soldiers and airmen deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001 ushered in a new age of U.S. military engagement.

"That's right," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the state's Guard. "Right now as we speak, we have about a dozen . . . deployed somewhere in the world outside North Dakota."

That's a big change for the state with the highest per-capita participation in the National Guard and one of the top deployment rates in the country.

Much of the time since 9/11, the state's Guard has had hundreds deployed, sometimes for more than a year, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other sites, as the Guard became more integrated into the regular military's war effort.

In fact, since 9/11, more than 3,500 soldiers in the Army Guard and 1,800 airmen in the Air Guard have mobilized in the Global War on Terror, said state Guard spokesman, Capt. Dan Murphy.


Sprynczynatyk said the state Guard has six personnel in Kosovo who decided last summer to extend their duty; two in Iraq and one each in Afghanistan, South Korea, Qatar and Guam.

The numbers can change every day, especially as Air Guard personnel can deploy singly, for relatively short times, Murphy said.

Meanwhile, several Air Guard members remain in-state in a new style of overseas deployment without leaving: remotely piloting -- from Fargo -- drones flying in combat zones.

"But everyone else is getting ready to do whatever we can do to protect lives and property when flooding comes," Sprynczynatyk said.

It wasn't planned to make sure nearly all Guard personnel were in state, ready to help in what may be one of the bigger flood years, based on National Weather Service predictions.

"It just worked out that way," Sprynczynatyk said. "Maybe we are lucky."

And it could change with little warning.

Three units, representing a total of about 250 Guard members, were alerted late last fall to be ready for mobilization. In the past decade, every such alert has led to a mobilization, usually within a year.


"One never knows what we may be called upon to do, and when we receive an alert order, we make sure our people are ready to go," Sprynczynatyk said.

The last Guard unit to return from overseas unit was made up of about 75 soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment based in Grand Forks.

They spent a year either in Iraq or Afghanistan, providing technology-based security for forward operating bases, making sure enemy forces weren't able to mount an attack on American forces.

Multiple deployments

That unit replaced one in which 1st Sgt. George Overby served in Afghanistan until a year ago, his second deployment.

Overby works full time for the Guard in Grand Forks at the armory, as the battalion operations sergeant. He's been in the Guard since 1987 after spending three years in the regular Army in California.

His first Guard deployment was for 17 months, nearly all of it in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, during some of the fiercest fighting. His unit's job was to train Iraqi soldiers, many of whom could not read or write and had never handled a weapon.

"We felt pretty good, like we established a certain base line of knowledge and confidence in their unit," he said. He still keeps in touch with the Iraqi interpreters he worked with, one of whom became an American citizen and now lives in Utah.


The high deployment schedule has raised questions of whether it's asking too much of Guard troops.

Overby doesn't think it has.

"I would say it's definitely stretched the Guard," he said. "Our battalion, since that first deployment we have had someone deployed ever since until just recently. So, it's been hard to train as we normally would, just because people are gone."

It's also meant the deaths of several Guard members, including four from the 188th. And the deployments do stress families, he said.

But that's what they signed up for, Overby said.

"We take what is given to us and I think we have done a pretty good job of what we had and what we were expected to do."

The added deployments have not hurt numbers because people want to serve their country when needed, Overby said.

"My last deployment I went on, the entire unit was volunteers."


Sprynczynatyk said the numbers bear out Overby's experience.

"Right now, on the Army side, we are at the highest level of enlistment and members in the North Dakota Army National Guard since the early 1990s," he said.

The Army Guard has 3,350 members, while the Air National Guard in the state has about 1,150 members.

"There's no question we have participated when called upon and we have participated at a very high rate," he said. "But in my mind that is indicative of the patriotic nature of the people of North Dakota. We have no problem recruiting and retaining folks, and that's reflected in the numbers."

"It's something that all of North Dakota can be extremely proud of."

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