More local soldiers make return home this week

A couple more New York Mills soldiers are among Minnesota's 2,600 National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq this week. Dale Bachim and Abraham Harthun, both of New York Mills, are coming home this Thursday. Both are with the 134th BSB. Dale's w...

A couple more New York Mills soldiers are among Minnesota's 2,600 National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq this week.

Dale Bachim and Abraham Harthun, both of New York Mills, are coming home this Thursday. Both are with the 134th BSB.

Dale's wife, Maria, and the couple's 5-year-old son, have long-waited the return. Dale hasn't seen his little boy for 16 months, missing two of the little guy's birthdays. Maria is excited to get the family back together but knows there is some apprehension with John. Dale was supposed to be home in March but his deployment was extended another four months - a let down for their young son.

When the original March date neared, Maria recalled John saying, "two more sleeps and daddy will be home." After March came and went John asked his mom: "Why isn't my daddy coming home?" She had to sit him down and again explain to John his dad would be coming home soon.

Maria and Dale communicated through regular emails and some phone calls throughout the deployment. They even tried to set up video calls three times but each one had to be cancelled for various reasons.


Maria said Dale was supposed to take a two-week leave in December to come home and visit the family, but since John had such a tough time seeing his dad leave the first time Dale decided not to take the leave.

Now, after being gone 22 months with the rest of the Minnesota Guard, the day is finally here for the Bachims.

"I have a lot of mixed feelings," Maria said Tuesday. "We haven't been a family for so long. We're really excited to see him and we're planning a welcome home party Sunday."

Maria's family is holding a family reunion on Saturday at Finn Creek, where Maria said VFW members will be on hand to honor Dale.

It's been a long 22 months for the Bachims but Maria said the people of NY Mills have really helped her out. Much of that came at the school where Maria works as a para-professional.

"All the support from the people in this community has been terrific," she said. On Valentine's Day the teachers got together and gave me flowers. And when the teachers heard he (Dale) was being extended I got so many hugs that day. It was pretty overwhelming."

Abe Harthun's parents, Doug and Judeen of Mills, are also excited to see their son come home. Abe is a Class of 2000 NY Mills graduate.

The 134th BSB was in Iraq since March of 2006. They left Iraq this past July 14, spent a couple days in Kuwait and arrived at Fort McCoy on July 17. Close to 178 soldiers from the unit arrive at Camp Ripley this Thursday.


Judeen Harthun showed a photo of Abe on Tuesday with a paper "hug" wrapped around him while in Iraq. The "hug" was sent to him by his niece from Deer Creek.

Judeen said Abe and his fellow soldiers loved to receive packages from home. "Things like that from the kids really lift their spirits," Judeen said.

She wanted to extend thanks to all the people and the local churches for all the prayers. Judeen said Abe plans to live in Perham and attend lineman school in Wadena. He is also engaged to be married Oct. 31.

Upon their return the Minnesota soldiers faced a full schedule of lectures, medical tests and other tasks preparing for civilian life before being allowed to head home.

But of all the experts they heard during the week-plus stay at Fort McCoy, the best advice may have come from their boss, Maj. Gen. Rick Erlandson.

"I'm going to ask you, as you go home, to go slow," the general told his troops. "Take it one step at a time. One hour at a time. A week at a time. A month at a time. But go slow.

"And if you do that, and you take advantage of the great support staff that we've assembled through the reintegration process - you as a family will never be the same again, but you will reach a new normal. And I can tell you that that new normal for the majority of us will be good."

The general warned soldiers that "you have changed" and so have family members.


Since the troops left Minnesota nearly two years ago, state military and civilian officials prepared for the time soldiers would come home from the longest deployment of any active or Guard unit sent to Iraq.

The 22 months soldiers were gone - 16 in Iraq after six in training - ended this month as they flew into a southwestern Wisconsin airfield and spent several days at nearby Fort McCoy attending what the Army calls "reintegration" workshops.

It is an effort to prevent physical and mental problems that many returning combat soldiers encounter.

Returning troops range from "people who are not affected at all, all the way down to people who are hospitalized," Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud said.

Much of what the troops went through at McCoy was pretty routine stuff - like medical exams and learning about veterans' health-care benefits.

Part of the McCoy program, Dyrud said, is Minnesota unique - enrolling every returning soldier in federal veterans' hospital programs. That may mean little to soldiers today, but when they need services in a few days or a few decades, they won't have to wade through a flood of paperwork to register.

On a more immediate note, soldiers will receive preventative care in the next three months.

Normally, federal rules give Guard soldiers returning from combat 90 days off. But Minnesota won a Pentagon waiver and will bring soldiers in for follow-up counseling sessions in one, two and three months. And Dyrud said his agency will follow up with returning soldiers in six months to make sure they are getting help they need.


At the same time, state and federal programs are helping families prepare for changes they face after their soldiers return.

Many soldiers' families already have gone through "family reintegration academies," learning what to expect from soldiers returning from combat duty.

Soldiers may attend the partially social "marriage enrichment workshop" or a "single service member retreat."

National statistics show at least a third of returning combat veterans will face some type of mental-health issues. Physical ailments affect others.

Many of those problems are not visible today.

"It is going to be a project for years," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said about the state's effort to help Guard veterans.

Pawlenty welcomed home troops the other day, but cautioned: "We also want to make sure it is not just a program and a speech. ... The work only just begins. ...We want to back it up with real support."

The record 22-month deployment just ending was tougher than past duties in places like Kosovo and Bosnia.


(Don Davis of Forum Communications contributed to this story.)

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