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Reserves wanting to leave Mideast

by Cloak and Dagger Saturday, Jul. 26, 2003 at 4:53 PM

Soldiers say most of their work involves civilian contractor Kellogg Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton Corp. The company has contracts to haul fuel, and 319th members are riding along as armed escorts. "The main reason we're still here is to support Brown and Root," said Sgt. 1st Class David Uthe, 45, of Augusta.

First, they heard it would be May. Then they heard June. Then they thought they had a departure date of July 20.

Now, members of the 319th Transportation Company fear they could be in the Middle East as late as September.

Speaking by cell phone from Kuwait, members of the Augusta-based Army Reserve unit say their extended stay in the desert - and their elusive return date - is having a maddening effect on morale.

Making matters worse, they're living in 120-degree temperatures, pulling guard duty at a base in Kuwait and riding shotgun in civilian fuel trucks on convoys into Iraq. They are working for an Army battalion that wasn't in the Middle East during the brunt of the war, as they were.

The 319th soldiers say they have seen other Army units come and go since they have been in Kuwait. Their spouses and families watch as Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and soldiers from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Gordon trickle home.

"We don't understand what's going on," said Sgt. Robert Curl, 44, of Cobbtown in Tatnall County. "We've been here long enough. We did our mission."

The unit's commander, Capt. Mohandas Martin, said everyone is tired and ready to go home. It seems as though every day the soldiers hear of troops being killed by snipers in Iraq.

They can't leave until they get the orders, though, and Capt. Martin said he doesn't know when that will be.

"I don't know if it's fair, but that's what's happening," he said.

Sgt. Curl, who works at a paint and body shop in civilian life, has contacted U.S. Rep. Max Burns' office for help, as has his wife, Jenny.

Mr. Burns' spokesman, Chris Ingram, said the office is making inquiries on behalf of the Curls. An Army liaison at the Pentagon told the office that the 319th did not have a scheduled leave date.

If Sgt. Curl makes a specific request, Mr. Burns' office could begin advocating for the 319th's return, but so far the office has been asked only to make inquiries, Mr. Ingram said.

A call to the Pentagon by The Augusta Chronicle was returned by a defense official who said he could not speak specifically about the 319th. About 146,000 troops remain in Iraq, and a troop rotation policy is in the works, he said.

About 130 men and women from the 319th remain in Kuwait. Most of the soldiers arrived in mid-February, and a forward team of 20 soldiers has been there since November.

During the first two weeks of the war, the 319th hauled all the bulk fuel for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in its drive to Baghdad, a job that took them through hostile territory and into ambushes and firefights.

The 319th is now working for the Army's 260th Quartermaster Battalion. It is stationed at Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City.

Soldiers say most of their work involves civilian contractor Kellogg Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton Corp. The company has contracts to haul fuel, and 319th members are riding along as armed escorts.

"The main reason we're still here is to support Brown and Root," said Sgt. 1st Class David Uthe, 45, of Augusta.

He said the supposed departure dates are being passed down through the ranks by word of mouth.

Julia McMurray's daughter, Pfc. Arrington Gray, 18, of Jacksonville, Fla., is deployed with the 319th. Mrs. McMurray said her daughter needs to come home to start college. She said she has sent e-mails to the Pentagon asking for an explanation.

"I don't expect anyone to respond," she said. "I'm trying to put the bug anywhere I can."

"We don't understand what's going on. We've been here long enough. We did our mission." Sgt. Robert Curl, on waiting to return home

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

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Important to know to understand the article. Cloak and Dagger Saturday, Jul. 26, 2003 at 4:54 PM
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