Southeast families prepare for callup

Posted: Monday, September 27, 2004

Carla and Ionel Casulucan celebrated the birth of their third child, a daughter named Jordan, three weeks ago. A few days later, they found out that Ionel's unit of the Alaska Army National Guard - A Company, Third Battalion, 297th Infantry - had been placed on active duty.

He and approximately 130 others from Alaska, including roughly 70 from Southeast Alaska, leave for Fort Richardson in Anchorage later this week. They are expected to be deployed overseas, possibly to Iraq, sometime early in 2005. The activation is expected to last as long as 18 months.

"It's difficult in that we just had the baby," said Carla. She and Ionel also have a daughter, 9-year-old Jessica, and a son, 3-year-old Joseph. "That, mixed with postpartum blues, didn't really make for a good mix."

Carla won some reassurance Saturday and Sunday during a "family mobilization training" briefing for affected families at the Valley Travelodge. The National Guard held the two-day event to pass on information about finances, health insurance, pay stubs, legal options, employee resources and general questions.

"It's to give the soldiers and their family an idea of what to expect when they leave," said Laura Gilbert, the family assistance center coordinator in Juneau for the Alaska Air National Guard. "Once upon a time, we didn't get this training, and families were left on their own to flounder and figure things out. That's why we've come up with this training, to let us all know what we need to accomplish."

A separate briefing was held during the weekend in Anchorage for families in the Interior.

"I feel better after this weekend than I have in the last couple of weeks leading up to this," Carla said. "We had a chance to come and meet the rest of the families. And just over the course of (Saturday) and (Sunday), learning that there may be times when they'll call to check to see how we're doing, that was peace of mind for me."

Ionel's company was placed on active duty Sept. 10. It was one of 60 National Guard and Reserve units affected by an involuntary call-up by the Department of Defense.

A large percent of the company is made up of former active-duty soldiers who have served in non-hostile zones, such as Germany and Italy. The group also includes many soldiers for which this will be their first time overseas. A small minority have fought in combat zones.

Gilbert was a special education assistant at Riverbend Elementary until two weeks ago, when she became the full-time point of contact for Southeast Alaska families affected by the mobilization. You can reach her at 465-1347, or at the Juneau office, 355 Whittier St.

Her husband, Joel Gilbert, is the company commander.

"I have my hands in the pot," she said. "I'll be going through the same thing that the families are, and it's not that I want it to be that way, but it's a great asset. It's hard if your family is complete and the other families are separated. I will be able to understand what they're going through."

"I've got 130-some soldiers that I need to take care of, and the way I look at it, the soldiers don't work for me, I work for them," Joel said.

"People are worried about making sure they're going to get their paychecks," he said. "If there are no pay problems, the guys can focus on their jobs."

Juneau's Gail Shrader found out about a month ago that her husband, Josh, a first lieutenant platoon leader, was going to be deployed. Just days later, their daughter, Kacy, was born. Kacy is 3 weeks old.

"I've been to conferences like this before, so a lot of it I already know," said Gail. Her brother, Mark Mesdag of Juneau, is also part of the call-up.

"I've been up and down the stairs taking care of the baby and being in the conference," she said. "They tell you all the financial things that need to get set up and everything you might not think about before they're gone."'

"Everyone is pretty settled to the fact that we're going somewhere, and they're ready for it," Josh said. "This is just good information to have in settling everybody down."

Carla Casulucan, an employee for a tribal entity, was born and raised in Juneau and has a large extended family here. Ionel works for Alaska Airlines.

"I'm not scared to go over," Ionel said. "I'm prepared to do my job. The only hard part is leaving my family, my wife and kids."

The Casulucans were surprised to learn that a $20 phone card, for a call placed from Iraq, is worth about 10 minutes of conversation. E-mail could also be shaky, depending on the Internet infrastructure where the troops are stationed. Regular mail could take up to a month to travel between Juneau and the Middle East, Laura Gilbert said.

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