Waiting game tough on National Guard and Reserve soldiers

CHICAGO – Kevin Lackey is eager to take what he’s learned in the Marine Reserves into war in Iraq. Theresa Lackey can’t bear to watch the news, for fear she’ll see soldiers searching for the enemy in houses pockmarked by bullet holes – the kind of work her son has been training for.

The Lackeys live in suburban Chicago, but their story could be told from anywhere in the country. As accounts of the war and the soldiers fighting there dominate the headlines, there is a quieter story for more than 1 million National Guard and Reserve troops – waiting and wondering if they’ll be sent to Iraq. Or sent back.

They’ve put their lives on hold, put off college, buying homes and cars, knowing they could join nearly 186,000 of their Guard and Reserve colleagues now on active duty, more than 60,000 of whom are in Iraq or Afghanistan.

They’ve said their good-byes only to be told at the last minute they’re not going anywhere – not yet, anyway – as their families brace for their deployment.

Kevin Lackey, 20, said his commanders were so sure his unit was going to be activated and deployed to Iraq this fall, “They told us to make our wills, tell family members to have a life without you and life with you in a combat zone. Then that fell through.”

“It’s like a roller coaster,” said Theresa Lackey. That’s particularly true during the holidays, which she suspects will be her son’s last at home before he ships out. “It makes us all more desperate to spend time with him.”

Matt Comeaux also uses “roller coaster” to describe the last few months. A sergeant in the Illinois National Guard, Comeaux said he learned last spring that his battalion was being activated in November or December.

Knowing he would be gone for 18 months, the 36-year-old divorced father moved out of the house he was renting and put his belongings in storage. He even found a new home for his dog.

“How do you ask somebody to baby-sit your dog for a year-and-a-half?” he asked.

A couple months before the unit was to leave, though, Comeaux found out he wasn’t leaving because “there wasn’t enough slots at my rank for me to go with my battalion.”

After being told he was next up if someone of his rank needed to be replaced, he found out he would not be going at all. Then, almost as soon as he told his 13-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter that he was staying home, he started hearing that he might be deployed after all.

In November, he was told he was being activated – in one week. “I get to see my kids two weekends a month,” Comeaux said. “I didn’t think I would be able to say goodbye to my kids.”

About two days later, those orders were canceled, too.

Such uncertainty is a reality of being at war, when needs for more troops can change rapidly, said Major Tim Franklin, spokesman for the Illinois Army National Guard. “Those decisions are made at the Pentagon and (U.S. Army Forces Command) based on the needs of commanders on the ground in Iraq,” he said. “And those needs change.”

Comeaux isn’t angry but describes the situation as “very emotional.”

“It’s up and down, not knowing what is going on,” said Comeaux, who is staying at a friend’s house, living out of a suitcase.

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