Friday, April 16, 2004

Local unit stuck at war

324th wants to come home

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The families of about 70 soldiers from the Middletown-based 324th Military Police Company will have to wait at least another three months for the homecoming they had expected in May.

The Ohio National Guard unit, which has been on the ground in Kuwait and Iraq since last May and away from home since February 2003, has had its tour of duty extended. It's part of a Pentagon plan to keep about 21,000 soldiers who had been scheduled to return in May.

In an e-mail to the Enquirer from the 324th's base camp in Kuwait, Sgt. Joe Ruchti of Newtown called the situation "very frustrating, trying and difficult'' for his unit.

"Our families and employers are sacrificing as much as the soldier, if not more,'' wrote Ruchti, who is a Cincinnati police officer in civilian life. "My wife has been asked to sacrifice entirely too much and shouldn't be asked to give any more.''

Rachael Ruchti, the sergeant's wife, said the soldiers of her husband's outfit "have done their part. It's time for somebody else to take a turn.''

What has Mrs. Ruchti and other spouses, parents and children of the 324th upset, too, is the way they found out about the extension: in a recorded telephone message that came Saturday night.

Ruchti called her husband in Kuwait on Easter morning, expecting that he had already heard the news. He hadn't.

"I had to be the one to tell him that he wasn't coming home,'' she said.

It is the second extension for the Middletown unit that was mobilized in February 2003 and spent weeks at Fort Knox, Ky., before being shipped overseas. On this extension, the 70 members of the 324th will be asked to provide security for private contractors running convoys from Kuwait into Iraq.

Originally, the unit was to have been sent home in November, after six months with "boots on the ground.'' But the deployment was extended for another six months.

The unit's deployment to Kuwait and Iraq was its second. In October 2001, just weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, members were deployed as airport security guards in Ohio and elsewhere.

Because of the previous airport security deployment, about 20 of the Guardsmen who were sent to Iraq were sent home last fall. They had reached the maximum of two years' active duty in a five-year-period, which is the rule for all Guard and reserve units.

The 70 who had not reached the two-year mark were left behind.

James Sims, a spokesman for the Ohio National Guard, said the 324th is the only Ohio unit affected by the Pentagon's decision to keep the 21,000 soldiers.

"Once a state guard unit is on a federal deployment, it is entirely up to the commanders on the ground or the Pentagon to decide how long they stay there,'' Sims said.

Ruchti said she spoke to her husband, a third-shift police officer in Cincinnati's District 1, from his base camp in Iraq Thursday morning: "Obviously, he's frustrated, so are all the guys. He spent five years' active duty in the Army; he's a police officer, so he knows all about doing his duty. It's just that this has gone on so long. It doesn't seem fair.''

The 324th was expected to be back home by mid-May - just in time for Ruchti and his wife to move from their Newtown apartment into a new home in Anderson Township by the end of May.

"I guess we have to come up with a new plan now,'' she said. "There's no telling when he'll be back.''


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