ANCHORAGE - The Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team will remain in Iraq with the likelihood that some of the soldiers already returned to Fort Wainwright will be sent back into war, a military commander said Thursday.
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About 3,500 members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade were expected to return to Alaska in the next few weeks. Under the new plan, the soldiers could remain in Iraq up to four more months. These are besides the 378 soldiers who have already returned to the base near Fairbanks.
Those Stryker soldiers already sent home will be considered for a return to Iraq on a case by case basis, said Col. Michael Shields, commander of the combat team.
"I know this news is not easy to hear for the families," Shields said speaking by teleconference from Mosul. "We will stay as long as the mission requires."
Sandra Mitchell, 30, wife of Staff Sgt. John Mitchell, said the Stryker families at Fort Wainwright knew there was a possibility their loved ones would stay longer in Iraq. Even so, when the news did come, it was a surprise, she said.
"We are in shock," Mitchell said.
She hadn't yet talked to her husband but had told their two children, ages 4 and 9, that they would have to wait longer to see their father, she said.
"They are taking it like normal kids," Mitchell said, as her children could be heard playing in the background.
Shields would not say how long the soldiers would be expected to remain in Iraq, only that the decision would be "determined by the situation on the ground, not time-driven." But a Department of Defense news release said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday had approved an extended stay of up to four months.
The 172nd Stryker Brigade's main mission has been to provide security training to the Iraqi army and Iraqi police in the northern town of Mosul.
Since being sent to Iraq in August 2005, the Stryker team has suffered 19 deaths, most of those combat-related. More than 300 Stryker soldiers have been wounded.
Shields said the 172nd Stryker Brigade was chosen to stay because it has distinguished itself as a fighting force capable of working in what he described as a "complex environment."
"They are up to this challenge," he said. "The enemy should not question our resolve. We will complete the mission and do it well."
According to defense officials, military commanders in Iraq are developing a plan to move as many as 5,000 U.S. troops with armored vehicles and tanks into Baghdad to try and put a stop to escalating violence in the Iraqi capital.
Under the plan to bolster security in Baghdad, U.S. troops would be teamed with Iraqi police and army units and make virtually every operation in the city a joint effort, one military official said. Another said movement of some troops into Baghdad had already begun.
Shields said he did not know if his soldiers would leave Mosul for Baghdad.
"We don't know exactly where we are going yet," he said.
The soldiers took the news well, he said.
"I can tell you we have a great group of soldiers and leaders and they are acting like professionals. They understand the importance of the mission at hand," he said.
Maj. Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, said the process of telling families began Wednesday and included a teleconference between Shields and some of the families. Shields also personally informed the leaders in the brigade, he said.
"The families of course were disappointed that their spouses weren't coming back. They listened and they understood," Jacoby said.
Military wives are prepared for this type of news, Mitchell said after Thursday's official announcement.
"People have been calling us all day to lend support. We are very tight-knit," she said. "That's part of being a soldier's wife."