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'Weekend Warriors' Still In Iraq

Phil Vanni was in a college welding booth studying hard to finish his degree in industrial maintenance when his fiancee ran through the snow to tell him they were heading to war.

Three days later, he was with his Army unit packing up equipment, getting ready for his deployment in Iraq. During his lunch break that day — Feb. 10 — he drove to the local court and married his fiancee, Jenn Harris. Both wore Army camouflage uniforms.

Since then, the two students from Michigan have been living in Army camps and clutching assault rifles while sweating buckets in Iraq's stifling heat — among the 42,000 U.S. Army reservists and National Guard in the country.

Part-time soldiers — often referred to as "weekend warriors" — from all over the United States have had to suspend their normal lives and adjust to a full-time Army lifestyle in the difficult, hostile conditions of Iraq.

And no members of the newlyweds' 652nd Engineer Company know when they're going home.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has said U.S. troops will be doing one-year rotations. But the part-time soldiers aren't so sure.

"Good question. We really don't know. There's lots of rumors but nobody has told us how long," said Capt. Dean Kasparek, a high school science teacher from Burnsville, Minn. He's the commander of the company, which is based at a former Iraqi military camp just outside Baqouba, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Army reserve and National Guard units make up 38 percent of the some 110,000 U.S. Army troops currently in Iraq. The total U.S. force in Iraq is about 130,000.

For most, it's a completely new and daunting experience.

The 652nd Engineer Company arrived in Iraq at the end of April, after U.S. forces had captured Baghdad and routed Saddam Hussein's army, but U.S. soldiers are still being attacked on a daily basis.

In and around Baqouba, troops are being shot at with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms as they travel along highways lined with date-palm groves. Army bases in the region are regularly shelled and roadside bombs put every convoy at risk.

A grenade thrown by an Iraqi bounced off Vanni's head while he was driving through Baqouba in July. The grenade didn't detonate, but Vanni was forced to shoot the Iraqi who continued to toss grenades.

A sergeant 1st class from his company was killed July 9 when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at his vehicle. Another reservist with a different unit was killed northeast of Baqouba on Friday when his convoy was ambushed.

Vanni and Harris met through their reserve unit, which is headquartered in Ellsworth, Wis., and Marquette, Mich.

Both joined to help pay for their college education and neither expected to be sent to war before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20.

Vanni, 24, of Negaunee, Mich., has been in the reserves for more than five years. Harris, 20, of Battle Creek, Mich., joined two years ago. He's a welder, she's a fueler.

They were planning to be wed after they'd finished college, but made a pact to get married if they were deployed.

"This is my honeymoon," said Harris, who was studying physical education.

The pair sleep in separate Army cots, with a camouflage poncho hanging from a rope to separate them — in line with Army regulations. For home comforts, they have a Mickey Mouse rug bought from local traders and a coffee table made from discarded timber. A metal heart Vanni made Harris for her birthday in May hangs from the tent.

But neither Vanni nor Harris said they regretted joining the reserves since it helped them pay for college. Under the Montgomery GI Bill, the Army pays tuition, fees and around $300 per month for books for reservists in college. They must attend drill sessions once a month and training camp for two weeks a year.

"Everybody told us if you could make it through a war with your husband you can make it through anything," Harris said.

The 652nd Engineer Company is a microcosm of U.S. reservists, bringing together students, carpenters, financial advisers, teachers and computer technicians, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural.

Reservists' employers are obliged to keep their jobs open, but don't have to pay them when they are away. Some are earning more money being with the Army, others are earning considerably less.

Sgt. 1st Class Steve Therrian, of Cornell, Mich., is earning 20 percent to 25 percent less while in Iraq compared to his salary as a millwright superintendent.

Therrian has been in the reserves for 15½ years but had never been deployed before.

"It's tough, you go from one weekend a month in the reserves to 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Therrian, 40, said, adding he has no regrets. "It's just hard on the family, real hard on the family."

Pvt. 1st Class Joshua Lehigh, 26 of Marquette, joined the reserves just over a year ago "to get school money and make a better life for my wife and kids."

His first reaction to being told he was heading to war was fear.

"It's just that part, not knowing what's going to happen and being scared of going to a war zone," he said.

But experience has changed him, opening his eyes to the world beyond the United States. He's even thought about joining the regular army.

"I miss my family a lot and think about them all the time, but it's been an experience being here. It's made me appreciate home more, seeing how Iraqis live and seeing how they have been treated," said Lehigh, who like many others had never been outside the United States before.