Calls to duty separate a local family

Two months after daughter returns, father is deployed.
Friday, March 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:12 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Roberta Howell, a member of the Missouri National Guard’s 1139th Battalion, returned home from Iraq on Jan. 16. Since then, she has been working with National Guard recruits at The Armory in Columbia and waiting to go to college in Warrensburg.

But what she really wants to do is return to Iraq.

“I felt like I was actually doing something,” Howell said.

Roberta’s father, Tom, was deployed Sunday with 55 other Missouri National Guardsmen from the 128th Battalion, which is based in Columbia. The unit headed to Fort Lewis, Wash., for 25 days of training and will eventually be stationed at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Meanwhile, with the Iraq war a year old now and National Guard troops facing the prospect of longer deployments, Leona Howell — Tom’s wife and Roberta’s mother — takes it in stride.

“I come from enough of a military family to know when Uncle Sam calls, you go,” Leona Howell said.

Since her husband joined the National Guard in 1980, Howell has learned to rely on friends, neighbors and her other children for help with day-to-day problems, such as a car that sometimes won’t start. Despite having two family members gone, Howell is not worried about herself but about others who have loved ones in harm’s way.

“I feel for the ones who’ve got little kids and can’t get away from the stress,” she said.

Roberta Howell, 24, joined the Guard when she was 17. Last February, with talk of a U.S. invasion of Iraq dominating the news, she wasn’t surprised when her unit was deployed. The 1139th received its orders to go to Iraq a few months later, on Mother’s Day.

“I always expected that was part of the package of being in the Guard,” she said.

Roberta was a military police officer in Baghdad. She also trained new Iraqi police officers. It was potentially a very dangerous job, she said. One day, a police station was destroyed by a bomb hidden in a car driven by a person wearing an Iraqi police uniform.

“Some of the people really wanted to make Baghdad a better place, and some were corrupt,” Roberta Howell said. “It makes it hard for everybody else because they don’t know who they can trust.”

Roberta’s deployment to Iraq was difficult for her mother.

“Any time the TV comes on your eyes are glued to see if they are on it,” Leona Howell said.

Howell later learned that her daughter purposefully hid from news cameras. She didn’t want people to see her face because they were in a rough area of Baghdad, and it could have put her in danger.

She is happy Roberta is home — so happy, she and her husband drove up to Fort Riley to see her the moment she returned from Baghdad. The possibility that both her daughter and her husband could be called to duty in Iraq is something she is prepared to face.

“I feel like we’ve gotten into this and we can’t pull out,” she said. “ I don’t feel we can leave those people.”

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