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Soldiers back from Iraq adjust to civilian life

DICKINSON - Southwest North Dakota, it turns out, had 10 area guardsmen return home last Saturday following an eight-month deployment to Iraq. The Press had reported that only three soldiers from Dickinson were coming back with the Minot-based 16...

DICKINSON - Southwest North Dakota, it turns out, had 10 area guardsmen return home last Saturday following an eight-month deployment to Iraq.

The Press had reported that only three soldiers from Dickinson were coming back with the Minot-based 164th Engineer Battalion, but in fact, that contingent included troops from Killdeer, Richardton and Belfield.

Spc. Dustin Aman, Spc. Evan Messer and Sgt. Kevin Remington, of Richardton; Spc. Robert Mahoney and Spc. Ben Nechiporenko, of Killdeer; Sgt. Eric Lothspeich, of Belfield; and Sgt. 1st Class Sean Bentz, of Dickinson, were not mentioned in the May 3 story that focused on three Dickinson soldiers: 1st Lt. Dana Schagunn, Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Leach and Spc. Kory Twardoski.

With the exception of Bentz, all the unmentioned soldiers had been attending college in Fargo or Grand Forks before they deployed. It's likely their school addresses were on file with the North Dakota National Guard, and that's why they were not flagged as being from the Southwest region, said Guard spokesman Lt. Dan Murphy.

"Soldiers are tracked based on their home of record or where they're living," Murphy said. "So somebody may have grown up in Dickinson, and they're going to school in Fargo, and we track as where they're living in Fargo."

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The seven additional soldiers were part of the same platoon as Twardoski. That platoon provided security for the base complex that surrounds Baghdad International Airport. They inspected identity badges, screened vehicles, manned watchtowers and looked out for enemy aggression such as improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.

"Basically, looking for anything out of the ordinary, and if there is any threat, obviously taking care of it," Remington said.

The soldiers typically worked eight-hour shifts, seven days a week. On an average day, the entry point they guarded, the busiest of three entrances to the base complex, saw upwards of 1,000 vehicles, he said.

Remington said the work they did was monotonous but dangerous, so complacency wasn't an option.

"It was hard to keep people...alert to the fact something could happen at any point in time," he said.

Remington, a 21-year-old on his first tour, was in a leadership position as a sergeant.

"It gave me a chance to grow up a little bit and just learn over there," he said.

Remington now finds himself adjusting to civilian life. After a respite in his hometown, he plans to move back to Fargo, enroll in classes at North Dakota State University and start looking for a job, pronto.

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Other guys, it seems, are taking more time to ease themselves back into the civilian world. Ben Nechiporenko, 21, said he's going to give himself some time to relax.

"We've been working for 11 months now, kind of 24-7," he said.

Nechiporenko said the adjustment has been tougher than he expected, especially dealing with the loss of military structure.

"There was always someone telling you what to do," he said. "Here, you're just your own guy."

Nechiporenko spent Thursday running errands in Dickinson with Mahoney. The two are roommates in Fargo, going to school at NDSU. They went to high school together and both ran on Killdeer's track and cross-country teams. Deploying with a friend made the tour a better experience, Nechiporenko said.

Messer seconded that opinion. He went over with his pals Remington and Aman. All three played football and basketball together at Richardton-Taylor High School. Messer said on "down days" he and his buddies would talk about home to give each other a boost.

Mahoney said the support the platoon got from the Southwest region was great.

"Definitely enjoyed getting letters and packages from people," he said. "Schools would send us stuff. We'd read the letters from all the kids, different grades. Really helped pass the time, and it made you realize you do have people thinking of you back home."

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In their spare time, the guys would lift weights, watch movies, surf the Internet, chat online and play video games. The hands-down favorite game: Halo 3, Mahoney said.

Bentz said the whole platoon developed a strong bond.

"You spend so much time with each other that naturally every other soldier that you deploy with becomes your close and immediate family," Bentz said.

And like a real family, there were highs and lows, Remington said.

"There's days you love them to death, and there's days you wish could get rid of them," he said.

No soldiers from the 164th were killed during the deployment, Murphy said. The battalion was not in a "highly active area," Remington said.

"Indirect fire was probably our biggest scare over there, when they would drop mortars or rockets on us," Remington said.

Though enemy projectiles were a reality, Lothspeich said, the 40-pounds of gear and protective armor they wore on duty created comparably more strain.

"Just wearing all that body armor and gear and having to deal with the heat is to me more stressful than hearing indirect fire," he said.

Lothspeich, 21, said he'll miss the camaraderie with fellow soldiers, but he won't long for Iraq. Rudimentary sewer systems and burning piles of trash near the base complex stunk up the air, he said.

"The sights and sounds and smells of Iraq - definitely not going to miss," he said.

Lothspeich said he plans to study civil engineering at the University of North Dakota in the fall. He said his re-integration has gone well so far. However: "It's going to take some more time to find that out for sure."

Bentz, a husband and father of three, has had to transition back into family life. He served a tour in Iraq during 2003 and 2004, so he had an inkling of what to expect coming home.

"I know when I come home it's momma's house. She runs the show and until they integrate me into it, it's going to be her show," he said.

Bentz, 34, has been in the Guard for 14 years, and he anticipates serving a third tour.

But for now, he's spending his time with his family.

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