The largest deployment in the history of the Idaho Army National Guard has come to an end just in time for Thanksgiving. Today, about 1,700 Idaho National Guard members are home with family after serving a year in Iraq for stability and counter-insurgency operations.
And few could be happier than Dan Ryan of Post Falls, reunited with his wife and their five children after a difficult 18 months.
Dan is a division chief with the Post Falls Fire Department. After a 15-year break from the National Guard, he re-enlisted two years ago and was assigned to the Headquarters Company for the 116th Engineering Battalion.
“On Jan. 21, 2004, I re-enlisted. On Feb. 28, we were put on alert,” Dan said. “In June, we were gone.”
Tiffiny, his wife, wasn’t surprised.
“When he told me he was re-enlisting, I was really unsure about that, but it was what he wanted to do,” she said. “I told him, ‘As soon as you re-enlist, they’re going to send you.’ And sure enough they did.”
Dan had a relatively safe experience in Iraq compared to many soldiers. He was a mechanic working at a forward operating base in Kirkuk, living and working with thousands of soldiers.
He spent most of his time on the base.
“Driving through town was probably the scariest part of the whole deal,” he said. “The rest of the guys who were out on a daily basis, I can’t imagine what they thought every time they pulled out of that gate, because there was stuff going on all the time. It was kind of a crapshoot where it was going to happen or when it was going to happen.”
On a security escort from Kirkuk to Tikrit, his convoy came under mortar fire, and twice he provided security during elections for a week at a time.
“I never had to fire a single round,” he said.
Still, when he first returned home, he was jittery, Tiffiny said. One night he woke up, shot up in bed and took a while to recognize where he was, she said. While driving, he’s hyper aware, he said, watching the sides of the roads and overpasses out of habit of a soldier in hostile territory.
The worst aspects of his deployment were the ramp ceremonies – when dead soldiers were shipped home – and missing his family, knowing that Tiffiny was going it alone.
“Tiffiny had a harder job than I had,” he said. “I didn’t have bills to pay. I didn’t have kids who needed to be here or there … I was kind of on my own.”
A routine and the support network in Post Falls helped Tiffiny cope, she said.
“When he first left, I don’t think I could even function,” she said. “You feel like a widow would feel.”
Despite Dan’s assurances that he was safe, she never believed it.
“None of those men and women over there are safe,” she said. Sometimes she’d be overcome by anxiety and would use breathing techniques she learned from her doctor to bring her heart rate and nerves under control.
Their blended family was split – Dan’s three children went to stay with his ex-wife for the duration of his deployment, while Tiffiny’s two sons, Andrew and Shane, stayed with her.
“It got lonely around here when it was just me and Shane,” said 12-year-old Andrew.
Dan missed the boys’ last two football seasons, a wrestling and basketball season, his daughter’s cheerleading competition, another daughter’s Junior Miss pageant and so much more.
“All of that, other than what’s on videotape, is lost,” he said.
In September, shortly before he was due to come home, he received an alarming call from the American Red Cross. His 17-year-old stepson, Shane Wallerstedt, was in the hospital following a car accident.
Shane had been riding in the back of a classmate’s pickup, when it crashed at a high rate of speed. He was thrown and his vertebra was crushed, but amazingly he was not paralyzed.
“We didn’t know how bad the break was,” Tiffiny said. “The spinal cord was completely vulnerable but was not touched. He’s lucky to be alive.”
Two days after the accident, Shane had surgery, and Tiffiny was on the phone every two hours with Dan in Iraq. They debated whether he should return immediately, but when Shane made it through surgery and it was clear he was going to be OK, they decided to wait.
The support network came through for her then, as it had during the entire deployment.
“The Fire Department was just unbelievable,” Tiffiny said. “They took me under their wing. They called me weekly.”
Firefighters mowed her lawns, installed more smoke detectors in the home and helped out in every way they could, she said. The chief’s wife accompanied her to the hospital after Shane’s accident to catch her when her knees buckled.
Except for the hardship on his family and the pressure it put on the Fire Department, Dan said he was glad for the experience to serve his country in Iraq.
The election detail was perhaps the most gratifying.
He was stationed atop a police station last January, scanning the crowd for trouble, as the Iraqis filed inside to vote and then back out again.
“I was watching the crowd really close, and I noticed a lot of people coming out of the polls crying,” he recalled. “It was my interpretation that this was the first time they got to do that.
“It was such a moving experience.”
And while he was half a world away, modern technology helped him stay in close touch with home.
“In Vietnam, they wrote letters home on C-ration box lids,” Dan said. From Iraq, Dan called home weekly, and when he had the patience to wait in long lines for 15 minutes on a computer, he’d send an e-mail. He also came home twice on leave during his 18-month deployment.
Another difference from Vietnam, he said, was the support for soldiers. Despite the debate over whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, soldiers aren’t vilified, he said. He felt the support in the governor’s send-off a year ago, in the care packages from home and in the satellite television news feeds he watched in Iraq.
Coming back has been much better, too, for recent veterans. Everywhere were signs of appreciation, from the yellow ribbons on every other car to the recognition at every public event Dan attended in Post Falls, such as a recent ribbon-cutting for the new American Legion Hall in Post Falls.
“I almost felt guilty, because I know the guys from Vietnam didn’t get that,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
Tiffiny spent Wednesday baking and getting ready for a household of people – the entire family and then some – for a celebration of thanks.
She’s grateful for the support she had from her children who helped with the chores and tried to be brave, from the National Guard support network, the American Legion and the Fire Department that came to her aid in so many ways: “I don’t think I could ever thank them enough.”
And she’s especially thankful to have her husband and son alive and well and home.
“This is going to be a special Thanksgiving,” she said.