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Paynesville Press - February 18, 2004

Father returns after 10 months on duty in Iraq

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

After spending nearly a year in the dust and heat of the Middle East, Todd Johnson was excited to come home. Making it home in time for Christmas just made it sweeter.

After spending ten months in Iraq with his Army Reserve unit - from February to December 2003 - Johnson made it home to his family just days before Christmas.

Todd Johnson relaxing in Kuwait A staff sergeant with the Army Reserve's 353rd Transportation Company - stationed in Buffalo - Todd drove a fuel truck and hauled fuel from a refinery in Kuwait to various destinations in Iraq, usually traveling hundreds of miles during each trip.

Staff Sergeant Todd Johnson spent 10 months in the Middle East with his Army Reserve unit - from February to December 2003 - returning home just in time to spend Christmas with his family.

While other convoys were attacked on the road by mortar fire and encountered land mines (usually homemade mines from improvised materials), Todd was never attacked, he reported. It was pure luck that he didn't come under fire, he said, because the roads in Iraq can be very dangerous.

He was glad to have made it through his tour of duty so safely, without ever coming under fire or having to return fire. "I never had to use my weapon in a hostile situation," he said.

Because Todd's unit was one of the first units in Iraq, there weren't a lot of creature comforts at their base. Their living quarters were not air conditioned, they had no computer hook-ups, and no hot showers, though one soldier in Todd's unit did have a portable shower that the troops used.

Doing his job in Iraq was rewarding, he said. People in the small Iraqi villages welcomed the troops because they carried fuel that would power electric generators. Many of the poor villages didn't have electricity for years during Sadam Hussein's reign, said Todd.

The unit's deployment, however, was beginning to wear on the troops, said Todd, and it didn't help any that the Army kept raising the soldiers hopes with promises of going home, only to dash their hopes by not delivering.

In June, the unit - which was one of the first in Iraq and one of the longest stationed there - was told that they would be going home in July. But the date came and went and nothing happened.

This happened a few times, said Todd. Finally in November, the unit was told again that they would go home soon. This time the soldiers said, "Yeah, right," and went about their duties, he said.

The whole unit was genuinely surprised when they were told one day in December to gather their gear because they were shipping out in less than 24 hours.

Once the unit reached the United States, the soldiers had to stay at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for 10 days before being reunited with their families. During this time, soldiers were de-briefed, went through counseling, endured medical outprocessing, and made sure their records were all in order.

One of the things the Army has been careful to do is collect medical information and blood samples from returning soldiers, just in case the troops experience any health problems in the future, said Todd. The medical samples were collected during the soldiers' stay at Fort McCoy. Knowing that Todd was just in the next state was almost as frustrating as having him in the Middle East for ten months, said Todd's wife, JoAnn. She and their kids were glad he was safely back in America, and they were thrilled to have Todd home for Christmas.

Coming home during the holidays was a mixed blessing, said Todd. While he was delighted to spend the holidays with his family, it was a hectic time to be transitioning back to a normal routine, he said. Getting back to work as a self-employed carpenter was easier, he said.

Now that he's home - the family lives just outside of Regal - Todd still has a lot of adjustments to make. Soldiers returning from long deployments need to be aware that things have changed since they last saw their families. Roles change, said Todd, especially when children are involved. While one parent was gone, the spouse left behind often has to assume the role of both mother and father.

Part of the counseling the soldiers received at Fort McCoy was to help prepare them for these changes. Todd and JoAnn had an easier time making the change back to a normal family life than some soldiers. They had experience to draw on because Todd had been on long deployments before, including a year-long deployment to Egypt.

Still, Todd couldn't have prepared himself for some of the changes he encountered when he came home. At the unit's homecoming party in December, he didn't recognize his wife because she had cut her long hair while he was gone.

Todd's two-year-old daughter, Caroline, was still a baby when he left. She was walking then, but while he was gone she grew into an active toddler who talks almost non-stop, laughed Todd.

Dylan, 7, and Stephen, 5, had both grown, and Todd was amazed at how much each had learned in the 10 months he was gone.

Gabrielle, 10, was still a little girl when he left. Now, she is as tall as her mother.

Now that he's home, Todd wants to get to know his kids again. As soon as the weather turns warm, he wants to take them fishing - the activity that was on top of the children's "things I want to do when dad comes home" list. He also wants to do some hunting and train his new dog, a six-week-old springer spaniel named Lady.

Todd will be eligible to get out of the Army Reserves late in 2004, and, after serving 12 years, he probably will, he said.

Whether his unit will be sent back to Iraq before then is unknown. While it is unlikely, said JoAnn, there is always a chance Todd may be deployed again before his time in the reserves is up.

The family, though, hopes that Todd is home for good.

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