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Troops' return ends Ill. Guard Afghan mission
Associated Press
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Published: 9/29/2009 12:04 AM

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CHAMPAIGN -- Buses carrying 188 Illinois National Guard troops on the last legs of their trips home from Afghanistan fanned out across the state Monday, bringing to an end a yearlong deployment that cost 18 of the state's soldiers their lives.

About 3,000 members of the state's 33rd Infantry Brigade started moving into Afghanistan last fall to train Afghan police and soldiers, just as the war there turned more violent and the country less stable. All but a handful are home.

"The level of expertise with the Taliban increased, the IEDs they were using became more powerful, the level of suicide bombings increased," said Maj. Gen. William Enyart, the Illinois Guard's commander.

"It was a difficult year in terms of the losses that we took. But I think that the 33rd really proved the value of the National Guard."

While the Illinois brigade lost 18 members, the unit it replaced -- a New York brigade -- lost eight in its nine-month deployment.

According to the guard, Illinois soldiers received 100 Purple Hearts and 130 Bronze Stars. Among other things, they helped build 15 schools and a dozen clinics and delivered 2.7 million pounds of humanitarian aid. They're being replaced by a Georgia Guard unit.

Returning troops enter guard programs to help them ease into civilian life. Some need only a little counseling, others more.

Just how many need serious psychological or financial help won't be known for a year or more, Enyart said.

Alyssa Peterson came home a little over two weeks ago.

The 21-year-old truck driver is working at the guard's Springfield headquarters until she returns to college at Indiana University in January. She says becoming a civilian again means doing things she's isn't accustomed to -- like not being told what to do and when.

"I don't know if I could go straight to making all my decisions in everything I do," she said.

She had no serious problems in Afghanistan, and so far has only needed to talk to her mom and friends about the transition back to civilian life.

Others need more serious help.

Tony Wantland's 25-year-old son Jacob saw a lot of combat, the elder Wantland said, including a mortar attack that cost him 50 percent of hearing in his right ear.

"He says he has trouble remembering a lot of things," said Tony Wantland, of Caitlin, about 35 miles east of Champaign. "They've been giving him lots of tests to see if he has some kind of combat brain injury."

The guard couldn't immediately say how many of those returning are in some kind of counseling beyond what's provided to all troops coming home.

Among the 18 deaths is one suicide, Maj. Brad Leighton said.

Almost certainly many now home will need more help.

"Troops that have gone through what these troops have gone through, a lot of them are going to need counseling," he said.

Other families are learning to live without the soldiers who won't come home.

Ralph and Linda Grieco's son, 35-year-old Kevin, died in a suicide bombing at a police compound Oct. 27, 2008.

The couple, who live in Winfield in the Chicago suburbs, have spent much of the past year memorializing their son, helping other families through similar circumstances and, with their daughter-in-law, taking care of their grandchildren.

Not everyone, Ralph Grieco said, understands why they devote as much time as they do to their son's memory.

"We're already hearing people in our various social and work groups saying, 'Aren't you over this? When's this gonna end?'" he said. "Like my wife says ... it's a different kind of loss."

Grieco's grandson, 5-year-old Joshua, is a constant reminder of that.

"It's been a year and a half since he last saw his dad," Ralph Grieco said. "He's asking questions."

One of the guard troops still in Afghanistan is Wantland's younger son, 22-year-old Kody, who volunteered to stay behind with another unit.

Tony Wantland says he would have stopped him if he could. He has mixed feelings about the continuing mission in Afghanistan.

His sons "feel like they're doing good and they're protecting the people that are there," Wantland said.

"I just wonder how long it's going to take."