Military News

129 Guard members return to loved ones human and canine

Jake and Trouble, both age 9, welcomed their dad home from Iraq with wet slobbery kisses Saturday.

And lots of squirming, yipping and whining.

The two black Labs made the trip from Bellevue to greet Maj. Frank Batcha, one of 129 members of the 116th Brigade Combat Team.

Wagging tails, a smiling girlfriend and several hundred cheering people are a dramatic change from what Batcha experienced since he was mobilized to active duty 13 months ago.

The Idaho National Guard brigade spent more than 10 months in Northern Iraq, where the 116th was responsible for the region's security and stability. About half its 4,000 members are from Idaho, and are returning home in waves through November.

Eighteen-month-old Logan Helgeson has spent two-thirds of his life without his father, Sgt. Landon Helgeson of Middleton. On the tarmac at Gowen Field Saturday, the two started catching up.

"When I left, he could not even hold up his head. Now he is talking. He does not know who I am," said Sgt. Helgeson, who last saw his firstborn son at 6 months old.

Saturday's reunion meant a long drive from the Sun Valley area for Maj. Batcha's girlfriend, Shannon Shields, and Labs Jake and Trouble.

"They really missed him," Shields said.

In civilian life, Batcha is a physician with a clinic in Hailey. He served as 116th brigade surgeon in an area of Iraq with "Third World medical facilities," he said.

"The emergency rooms did not have monitors or oxygen. Kirkuk General Hospital was a nightmare," said Batcha.

"We made a difference. We were very much needed," he said. Most rewarding: Helping coordinate the Army Medical Project, which helped build clinics, provide medical supplies and training to Iraqis.

Batcha said some of the most moving moments for him were seeing the Iraq elections take place and the number of Iraqis involved in the process.

"Two elections — that was incredible to watch that happen," he said. "There was over 80 percent voter turnout."

Not only did Iraqis take advantage of their chances to vote, Batcha said, but also their newfound opportunity to voice opinions. "Dissenters were able to express disagreement," he said. "That could not have happened before."

Wearing a big grin and a floppy hat, Logan Helgeson pointed to an airplane flying overhead and said "Plane." Dad chuckled and hugged his son even tighter. "Yes, that is an airplane."

While Helgeson's first priority is getting reacquainted with his son and spending time with his wife, Julie, he will not soon forget the people he served with in Iraq, especially his driver and "battle buddy" Spc. Michelle Halford of Utah. Helgeson, a medic, and Halford formed a bond while sharing trying and rewarding times together, he said.

When Helgeson was unable to get leave to come home, Halford visited Julie and Logan in Middleton while on her leave. When she returned to Iraq, she regaled Helgeson with stories and pictures of his family.

Halford hasn't come home yet, Logan said. "Her orders are to call me as soon as she touches ground."