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Paynesville Press - November 19, 2003

Local Army Reserve unit returns home

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

After spending nearly eight months on active duty, troops from the Army Reserve detachment stationed in Paynesville returned home in September after finding that they would not be needed to help fight the war in the Middle East.

With just two days notice, troops from the Paynesville detachment of the 704th Chemical Company, based in Arden Hills, left Minnesota in January, headed for Fort McCoy in Wisconsin where they were to prepare for overseas deployment.

Initially, the unit was scheduled to be deployed to Turkey where troops could enter Iraq to search for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, but when that country closed its borders to U.S. troops, members of the 704th were left without a mission, according to Sergeant First Class Thomas Hopkins.

Instead of deploying to the Middle East, the unit was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington state in March. While they were there, they trained ROTC cadets whose permanent trainers were in the Middle East, said Hopkins.

The unit was split up. Some drove troop transport trucks, some worked on the nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare range, and others worked as dispatchers.

Not going overseas was difficult for troops who were ready to fight for their country, said Hopkins. Because Army Reserve units can be as close-knit as a family, many of the troops didn't like being split up, but Hopkins pointed out that the cadets needed to be trained and troops from his unit were proud to do whatever was necessary, he said.

The troops were also surprised when they ended up in Washington state instead of Iraq. "It really blew our minds," said Hopkins, "but it had to be done."

The unit returned to Minnesota in September.

Made up of soldiers from throughout the state (although currently there are no Paynesville reservists attached to the unit), the 704th Chemical Company was the first unit in the Army Reserve that was fully qualified in chemical reconnaissance. It is just one of three units of its type in the country, said Hopkins.

The unit's mission is to "provide nuclear, biological, and chemical agent reconnaissance support" and "to locate, identify, mark, and report nuclear, biological or chemical contamination and identify bypass routes around contaminated areas," according to their mission statement.

Reconnaissance of this type is fairly new to the Army, said Hopkins. If fact, it isn't even emphasized in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare training, a fact that will likely change as the danger of encountering these weapons increases, Hopkins believes.

Until 1991, when the unit was formed, the Army's emphasis was on decontamination of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, added Hopkins.

Whether the unit could still be deployed to the Middle East at a later date is unknown, said Hopkins. He pointed out that the unit's mission has shifted to homeland defense, a mission that he and many of his fellow soldiers like, he said.

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