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Dickinson troops to return from Iraq tour

DICKINSON - Three guardsmen from Dickinson are set to return to North Dakota today after having served for eight months in Iraq at a base complex near the Baghdad International Airport. They arrived at Camp Shelby, Miss., on Wednesday after 15 ho...

DICKINSON - Three guardsmen from Dickinson are set to return to North Dakota today after having served for eight months in Iraq at a base complex near the Baghdad International Airport. They arrived at Camp Shelby, Miss., on Wednesday after 15 hours of traveling.

"The process is so long you're kind of numb during the whole deal, but you can tell when you hit the good U.S.A. because the air smells pretty decent. You have no dirt, no dust," Sgt. Maj. Bill Leach said Thursday.

Leach, a lieutenant with the Dickinson Police Department, said the 90-percent humidity at Camp Shelby was a welcome alternative to the dry 110-degree heat in Iraq.

Leach, 49, said he's eager to see his wife and five kids. After getting home, he predicts he'll spend time with his family and then catch up on sleep.

"Do the huggies-kissy thing and then take a nap and rest for a day or two, and then I'm sure that the wife has a chore or two that she wants me to do," he said.

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Marie, Leach's wife of 29 years, said there will be chores, but also a surprise.

"While he was gone...I remodeled, so he's going to be in for quite an awakening when he walks in the door," she said.

Leach returns along with Lt. Dana Schagunn and Spc. Kory Twardoski. The three are part of the Minot-based 164th Engineer Battalion which arrived in Iraq in September 2007. The majority of the unit's 118 soldiers are from Minot, but all areas of the state are represented, Staff Sgt. Billie Jo Lorius said.

"In kind of, like, North Dakota fashion, a bunch of people came together to fill out the unit and make sure all the spots were filled up," she said.

The three Dickinson soldiers were the only guardsmen from southwestern North Dakota who deployed with the battalion. No members of the unit were killed during the tour, said Lt. Dan Murphy.

The unit led security forces consisting of 540 soldiers from National Guard companies in Minnesota, Iowa, California and North Dakota, stated a release from the North Dakota Guard.

For Leach, his mission centered on gathering intelligence.

"Basically, we tried to forecast what the enemy is likely to do in the short term or long term," Leach said.

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Schagunn said members of the battalion did face some combat situations, but that number was relatively low. He credits that to the troop surge that quelled violence in Baghdad during their tour.

Schagunn said part of his mission was to develop the economy of Makasib, a city outside Baghdad.

The 39-year-old accountant has spent three years on active duty and five years in the reserves. He said he hasn't seen his wife and three boys - ages 4, 5 and 8 - since October when he took leave. The separation has made his family more self-reliant, he said.

"It's definitely made, you know in my case, my family stronger, more able to operate without me," Schagunn said.

Twardoski, 30, said he's excited to see his wife Jesse, two daughters, ages 10 and 6, and his 2-year-old son.

The first thing he's going to do when he gets home: "I'm going to sit on my bed and realize that in 14 days I don't have to go back."

Jesse said she's been anticipating this day for a while.

"It's been a long time coming. It's gone really fast, but it's nice to have him here finally," she said. "Sometimes it was very scary if I sat down and thought about it, but I tried to keep myself preoccupied as much as possible."

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Twardoski was part of a platoon that worked to secure the base complex which consisted of three or four different forward operating bases, he said. His platoon was on the lookout for suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.

"My experience there, it was a good experience overall just because the 20,000-troop surge made a difference there for a while as far as the country was able to be more secure and step up their security forces," he said.

Twardoski works in the oil fields for Wyoming Casing Service Inc. and anticipates it will be a challenge to return to civilian life. His wife said the same.

"I think he's excited but nervous at the same time about coming home and readapting to the kids and this daily life here," Jesse said.

Schagunn said there's no indication if the unit will be redeployed, but said it's always a possibility.

Asked about the prospect of returning, Twardoski said, "I'd go back in a minute. I'd go back to Afghanistan if I had to, too."

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