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National Guard members headed home

ST. PAUL -- The 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops stationed in Iraq for the past 16 months should be home within weeks, officials said Tuesday.

Some members of the 34th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team already left Iraq, and all of the troops are expected back in the United States by early August, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Adjutant Gen. Larry Shellito said at a Capitol press conference.

The 1st Brigade Combat Team has conducted roughly 4,500 convoy escort missions in support of the U.S.-led war effort and worked on more than 100 reconstruction projects, Shellito said.

The soldiers "have performed admirably in the face of much danger and hardship," he said. Nine members died in combat and others were wounded.

Due to logistical challenges, the brigade will return in groups. One 75-member unit - the Grand Rapids-based 136th Infantry, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, C Company - arrived Monday at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, where all troops will undergo eight days of demobilization before returning to their hometowns.

"We are counting on Minnesota to welcome back these wonderful warriors with open arms and loving hearts," said Pawlenty, who met with brigade members in early March during a trip to Iraq.

Most units are expected home by the end of July; all members should be out of Iraq by Aug. 1.

The troops have been authorized to give their relatives a general idea of when they plan to be home, Shellito said, and hometowns will know of troops' return at least two days in advance.

When the soldiers return home, they will encounter bolstered reintegration efforts. Pawlenty, a Republican, and the Democrat-led Legislature agreed this year to increase funding for programs serving active-duty soldiers and military veterans.

"Anybody can say, 'Welcome home,' wave the flag and all that, but there's a lot more to it than that," said Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, who is among the Legislature's most outspoken supporters of veterans' initiatives.

The National Guard units will meet three times over three months for a reintegration training program called "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon." Family members and fellow soldiers will be asked to help identify returning troops who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Shellito said.

The brigade received its mobilization order in August 2005. Troops trained for six months at Camp Shelby, Miss., before being deployed to Iraq in March 2006.

Initially, they expected to be home within one year - the typical overseas tour length - but learned this spring they would serve for up to an additional four months.

The Defense Department decision frustrated troops and their families and prompted criticism from leading Minnesota politicians because of the way it was handled.

"This is a very long deployment," Pawlenty said Tuesday. The 1st Brigade Combat Team has served the longest tour as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The troops were tapped from base armories across the state, including Alexandria, Bemidji, Cottage Grove, Crookston, Detroit Lakes, Duluth, Fergus Falls, Hastings, Jackson, Long Prairie, Luverne, Moorhead, Pine City, Pipestone, Rosemount, St. Paul, Stillwater, Thief River Falls and Winona.

Another 1,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized for service in Iraq or are scheduled for mobilization, and Minnesota also has other active-duty soldiers still serving in the war, officials said.