Returning Guardsmen Plan to Stay Put

Meghan Danehy (left), 21, of Chico, chokes up Thursday morning in Petaluma as SPC Buck Garrett, from the 579 the Engineering Battalion of the California National Guard, arrives by bus after a year-long deployment in Iraq.
(Tristan Spinski)
Times Staff Writer

PETALUMA, Calif. — Sgt. Nate Gorin served tours with the Army in Afghanistan and then with the California National Guard in Iraq.

Returning home Thursday to a boisterous, patriotic welcome at the Petaluma National Guard Armory, Gorin, 23, said he planned to leave military service and pursue environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz.

“No, I’m not going to reenlist,” Gorin said emphatically. “I think I’ve done enough.”

Spc. Chris Murphy, 22, a Lake County rock musician, said not even the $15,000 bonus being offered for reenlistment is enough to entice him to sign up again.

“There is no amount of money they can give me to stay in,” Murphy said. “I was active for two years and I signed up with the Guard to go to college. I was in for 5 1/2 years, and I only finished three semesters of school. I don’t want to get pulled out again.”

As thousands of troops across the country return from the first extended National Guard overseas combat role since the Korean War, officials are watching reenlistments wane despite bonuses and other incentives recently authorized by Congress.

Soldiers such as Gorin and Murphy who joined the National Guard to help pay for their education say they are dissuaded by the prospect of additional duty in war zones.

In the coming weeks, more than 6,000 California National Guard soldiers will return home after finishing their assignments in Iraq, and 4,000 soldiers will be headed overseas to replace them. From around the country, National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers account for about half of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The homecoming of Petaluma-based Alpha Company, 579th Engineer Battalion, which has suffered one of the highest casualty rates among all Guard units in Iraq, offers a look at the changing nature of a state “citizen soldier” militia.

For decades before Iraq, the California National Guard had been used primarily to contend with natural disasters and other crises inside the state. Guard enlistees could count on relatively light weekend duty and summer training camp. Now, with the manpower needs of Iraq calling, the “weekend warrior” era is over.

Presiding over the Petaluma welcome home ceremony Thursday, California National Guard commander Brig. Gen. James Combs estimated that at least a quarter of Alpha Company will not rejoin the Guard when their enlistments expire.

Combs said the dropout rate, while higher than it is in peacetime, is still less than the 35% or more officials had feared.

But even Guard veterans such as Alpha Company’s 1st Sgt. Kenneth Skolnik said they are considering quitting.

Skolnik, 44, who has a peacetime job with the state Department of Corrections in Sacramento, was greeted at the Petaluma ceremony by 11 members of his extended family, including his two children, ages 14 and 12.

“I’ve missed too many Father’s Days,” Skolnik said. “I’ll have 25 years in the Guard in December. They’ve offered me another job, but I’ll have to talk to my family before I decide.”

Adding to Skolnik’s dilemma over reenlistment is the particularly difficult time that Alpha Company has had in Iraq.

Starting out with 100 men, the engineering company was assigned to patrol the perimeter of a large U.S. military base in Balad, in the so-called Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad.

One out of four Alpha Company soldiers was killed or wounded in the yearlong tour.

Two soldiers, Lt. Andre Tyson, 33, of Riverside and Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, 34, of Tracy, were killed in June when an Iraqi National Guard soldier accompanying them on patrol turned his weapon on them. The attacker was recently arrested in Baghdad, Skolnik said.

A third man, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, 45, of Sebastopol, was killed in November when a bomb exploded under his Humvee.

“Before we left, I promised all the families that I would bring their men home safely,” Skolnik said. “It was just bad luck that we got one of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq. I ended up having to order my men to do things I knew could get them hurt or killed.”

Complicating matters, soldiers in the unit had been trained primarily to perform in a support role as combat engineers, but then were ordered to serve as infantry foot soldiers.

“Why they picked this California engineers company to do this when they had infantry units who were given much less dangerous missions, I can’t tell you,” Skolnik said.

One of the soldiers at Thursday’s homecoming who said he would like to rejoin if his war injuries heal was Sgt. Frank Papsworth, 44, of Sonoma. Wounded in two separate incidents, he received his second Purple Heart medal from Brig. Gen. Combs.

“I was depending on this to be a job for the next few years,” Papsworth said. “Now I have to go back to school or get another job.”

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism students Felicia Mello, Jeff Nachtigal, Melissa Nix and Rebecca Ruiz also contributed to this report. More Times coverage of National Guard issues can be viewed at .