Duty calls for Maryland Guard

About 130 troops from 629th Battalion deploying to Bosnia

January 31, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Saturday night, long after his 4-year-old twins were asleep, Keith Northrup stayed up late reading children's books into a tape recorder, including a family favorite: "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

A warrant officer for the Maryland Army National Guard, Northrup, 32, of Odenton left yesterday to spend about nine months in Bosnia-Herzegovina on a peacekeeping mission. He wanted to leave part of himself for the twins while he was away.

When he signed up to join the Maryland Army National Guard four years ago, he said, he never expected to be deployed. He was happy serving the mandatory one weekend a month and two weeks every summer. But with cutbacks in the active Army, the Guard has begun to take a more active role in military operations -- a development met with mixed feelings among those, like Northrup, who gathered at the Private Henry G. Costin Armory in Laurel yesterday to begin their journey to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

About 130 men and women from the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion, based in Laurel, will go to Bosnia this week. Most are scheduled to leave Thursday. Northrup was one of 20 who left yesterday to prepare the way for the others. They took a bus from the armory to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and flew out shortly after noon -- just before the snow hit.

The battalion will fly to Texas first to get organized at Fort Hood for several days before flying to Bosnia. It will be assigned to the Texas Army National Guard's 49th Armored Division and will work to stabilize the peace in the former Yugoslavia, with its volatile mix of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, as the region recovers from war.

The deployment is historic for two reasons. It is the first time in U.S. Army history that a National Guard division will have command of an active duty unit and multinational units, said Lt. Col. Edward A. Leacock, the 629th's commander. It will also be the first time a National Guard intelligence unit will have the overall responsibility for conducting intelligence operations in a military operation other than war.

Leacock said the 629th was chosen because it is the only fully staffed military intelligence battalion of its type in the Army National Guard.

Historic or not, many of the men and women who left yesterday have mixed feelings about going -- even though Leacock said that every one of them volunteered for the mission.

Most left behind families and civilian careers, on hold for up to nine months while they carry out their military duties. Some worry about making ends meet on a military salary for so long. Others worry about the effect the separation will have on their spouses and children.

Still others worry that the region, so recently stabilized, could erupt again into war.

But almost all of them said they feel they owe it to this country to go to Bosnia, and some even said they are excited about it.

"I'm looking forward to it, to be honest," said Sgt. Howard David Wade, 34, of Forestville, as he slumped against his bags in the airport yesterday waiting for the plane. "It's another experience to add to my belt, to things I've seen."

Wade's girlfriend is not quite so enthusiastic.

"She hates the whole idea," he said.

Wade said he joined the National Guard in September 1991 after six years of active duty in the Army. Although he is excited to go to Bosnia, he said he will take a substantial pay cut.

Even full-time military pay, he said, doesn't compare to the salary he earns as a Washington, D.C., police officer.

"My biggest issue is making sure my mortgage is being paid," Wade said.

Mayb Sersland, a second lieutenant from Annapolis who works full time for the National Guard, said she volunteered to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina because she thinks it's a good career move.

"It looks good to have a deployment," she said.

But Sersland, 26, is a single mother and doesn't relish nine months away from her 3-year-old daughter, Tylyn, who will live with Sersland's sister in North Carolina while Sersland is in Bosnia.

"It's tough," she said. "It's real tough. But what can you do?"

Sersland was glad her family wasn't at the Laurel Armory yesterday to see her off.

"I knew I'd cry if my daughter was here, and I wouldn't want to cry in front of the troops," she said.

"There's some apprehension," said a dour Staff Sgt. Ed Siebold soon after he bid his wife and 10-year-old son goodbye at the armory. "Things have been pretty quiet over there for quite some time. But potential for all hell to break lose is still there, so there's still some concern."

Sgt. 1st Class John Mason, 50, of Mount Airy said his wife is taking it hard. Aside from that, he thinks the National Guard will benefit from working more closely with the active Army because it will receive additional equipment, training and funds.

"With everything being downsized," he said, "we're going to be used more and more."

As for Northrup, he struggled to put on a brave face as his wife and twins helped him load his luggage onto the bus that would take him and the others from the armory to BWI airport. When the time arrived to say goodbye, it looked as though he was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day himself.

"I wish I could stay with my family one more day," he said.

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