By Larry Kline
The soldiers who returned home to Havre and Chinook after serving in Iraq are thankful to have returned safely to Montana, far from the sweltering 130-degree heat, vicious sandstorms and the threat of attack.
"It's good to be back in my own bed, eat real food and be with my family," said Spc. Brian Hilliard of Havre.
Hilliard and about 20 other local Montana Army National Guard members, who serve with the 443rd Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants Company, returned March 3 after serving with the Kalispell-based 639th Quartermaster Company for more than a year.
Hilliard, 25, said he spent a lot of time at Tallil in southern Iraq but moved to different Army bases quite often, never staying in one place for more than two months. He performed maintenance on the tankers that were used to ship fuel across the country.
He occasionally traveled with the convoys, and said the trips gave him a break from the daily grind on base. He was much more concerned about possible attacks during the first few months, he said.
"You're always aware of it," Hilliard said. "There could be danger, but you get used to it."
He said the terrain of southern Iraq was devoid of mountains or vegetation.
"It's kind of like the badlands, only flat," Hilliard said.
When he had downtime, Hilliard used his Xbox, Playstation 2, laptop computer and television to keep himself entertained.
Hilliard said he agrees with the mission in Iraq but thinks the locals should be given more control.
"I believe what we've done is good, but I also believe that we're pushing too much of our force in there," he said. "We should let (the Iraqis) do more. They're starting to, but I think we're holding their hands too much."
Hilliard will spend the next few months doing recruiting work for the National Guard before returning to Montana State University-Northern, where he is double majoring in biology and health promotion.
"It was definitely a life experience," Hilliard said of his tour of duty. "It makes you appreciate the United States a lot more. I'm just glad to be back in Montana."
Staff Sgt. Lowell Long of Chinook spent most of his time in southern Iraq working in a warehouse, where he processed supply requests for units all over the region.
During his tenure in Iraq, Long visited a few local villages and an orphanage, and delivered school supplies to Iraqis. Most of the locals where he was live in mud huts, he said.
"They don't hardly have anything," Long said. "They're a very poor people. The buildings they live in are hard to describe unless you see one. The majority of the people over there support the fact that we're there because they know they'll have a better life later on."
The 48-year-old father of three taught special education at Harlem Elementary School before traveling overseas. He said he can't wait to get back to his students, who sent him letters and pictures throughout the year he was gone. He is happy to return to his wife, Kathryn, and their children, Elizabeth, Rebecca and David.
Long said troops worked in the morning or evening to avoid heat that averaged about 130 degrees in the summer and once peaked at 150 degrees.
"In the middle of the summer the heat is unbearable," he said. "You just have to work around it."
Long said the troops' reception in Kalispell was excellent and everyone at home has been very welcoming.
He said he wanted to thank everyone who supported the troops, even if they didn't support the mission.
"A thank you to everybody for the support for the soldiers we have over there," Long said. "Even if they didn't believe in the reason we were over there, they still supported us and that was great."
Tim Callahan of Havre said the hardest part of serving in Iraq was the separation from his son, Ryan, and daughter, Brittany.
"Being away from the children was almost too much," Callahan, 43, said. "You hate to be away from the kids."
Callahan stayed in touch by phone once a week and used the Internet to e-mail them whenever he could.
He spent most of the second half of the year performing his duties as a crane operator in a supply warehouse at Tallil, but was tapped for convoy security for the first six months.
Callahan would stand up through a hole cut through the roof of a fuel tanker's cab and man a gun. One convoy, a combination of the 639th and another unit, was hit with an improvised explosive device, or IED. No one was seriously hurt, but such attacks were a concern.
"There was a sense of danger all of the time," Callahan said. "The farther north you went, the more nerve-wracking it was. The adrenaline was pumping and you were overly aware, but you never worried about the attack because if it was going to occur, it would. I was never in total fear of it because there were so many convoys that didn't get hit. It wasn't as bad as some of us would think over here."
Callahan said the area he was stationed in was one of Iraq's poorest.
"A lot of (Iraqis) lived in tents," he said. "There's not a lot of vehicles around. A lot of kids don't wear shoes. Their clothes seemed alright, but I think they washed them in the river because they didn't have any other place to do it."
He said the country becomes more populated farther north and facilities are much better, but it's nothing like life in the United States.
Callahan said the situation in Iraq is improving and will continue to as long as the Iraqis are given more control and more of them are trained for security.
"Throughout the year, things did improve," he said. "Even on our base, we started to see more of the Iraqi troops training. I see a lot of positive things, but I think we have a long ways to go."
Callahan said he got a kick out of corresponding with elementary kids from Box Elder. The children even sent him a Box Elder T-shirt. He plans to visit with the kids soon.
Before going to Iraq, Callahan worked at Tire-Rama for more than 20 years. His co-workers and friends held a party to welcome him home March 4. He will be returning to work there at the end of the month.
Callahan said he wants to thank the entire community for its support.
"It's just been overwhelming," he said. "The people you visit give you a big handshake and say 'welcome home,' and that really goes a long way for us soldiers."