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Members of Cpl. William Anderson's family, including son John, 10, left, wife Cynthia, daughter Taylor, 8, and mother Kandi Kerwood, listen to the missions accomplished by the 690th Chemical Company during its tour of duty in Iraq.
AP photo by Kate Mercer
Members of Cpl. William Anderson's family, including son John, 10, left, wife Cynthia, daughter Taylor, 8, and mother Kandi Kerwood, listen to the missions accomplished by the 690th Chemical Company during its tour of duty in Iraq.

Alabama Guard unit back home
Guardsmen protected top Iraqi leaders

By Garry Mitchell
Associated Press Writer

MOBILE — An Alabama National Guard unit that provided security for top Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, returned home Friday without any casualties, but with memories of some close calls from roadside bombs.

Spc. Justin Henson, from Gadsden, with wife Natalie and sleeping daughter Lillian, 16 ,months, at the coming home ceremony of the 690th Chemical Company.
AP photo by Kate Mercer
Spc. Justin Henson, from Gadsden, with wife Natalie and sleeping daughter Lillian, 16 ,months, at the coming home ceremony of the 690th Chemical Company.
Capt. Stephanie Brown of Luverne said 152 Guard members from 22 different units throughout the state were deployed under the banner of the 690th Chemical Company. They left Baghdad for home on Dec. 30, the day of Saddam Hussein’s execution, she said.

She said the unit’s assignment to protect Iraq’s top officials was similar to Secret Service protective duty for U.S. government leaders, taking them to and from their offices in the heavily guarded Green Zone and homes.

“Luckily, I had no one killed,” Brown said, recalling the many roadside bombs struck while on security-escort runs.

The prime minister, along with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and six others, were protected by the Alabama Guard members, Brown said.

Decorated unit

Regular duty for the 690th is to provide chemical contamination support and battlefield cover through the use of mounted smoke generators, but its members were retrained for the protection duty in Iraq. They were awarded 13 Bronze Stars and one Purple Heart, among other medals.

At Friday’s welcome-back ceremony, Republican Gov. Bob Riley, who had visited the unit in Iraq, said they had completed “the most dangerous mission going on in Iraq.” He said they not only lived up to the mission “but surpassed it.”

Maj. Gen. Mark Bowen, the adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard, also praised the unit’s performance.

Family members and friends, waving U.S. flags and colorful balloons, swarmed the soldiers after the reunion ceremony, taking photos and passing around newborns as children ran around Fort Whiting Armory.

Marla Smith welcomed back her son, Sgt. Randal Franks, a full-time Guard recruiter in Huntsville.

“It was full-time prayer. Didn’t stop,” she said, describing the yearlong wait for his return.

Smith and the soldier’s stepfather, Donnie Smith, drove the 10-hour trip from Huntsville to Mobile in a van, with writing on its windows: Welcome Back From Iraq 690th.

“We just need to get it wrapped up over there and come home,” Donnie Smith said.

The soldier’s sister, Sgt. Hannah Smith, assigned to another Guard unit, has not been sent to Iraq.

Dora Johnston of Fairhope said she expects her son, Spc. Jean Paul Stassi, will leave the Army after going to Iraq. She said Stassi, 27, of Mobile, has served 10 years in active Army and the Guard.

“This has changed his life,” she said. “Hopefully, they don’t have to go back.”

Johnston said she doesn’t agree with President Bush on Iraq, but, she said, he’s the commander in chief. “We’re here to support him,” she said.

Bush is expected to deliver a speech soon on his Iraq strategy.

When asked, Riley, a former congressman, declined to “second-guess” the president or the Pentagon.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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