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Guard unit to return home

For almost a year, the Alabama National Guard’s 200th Engineering battalion has been in Iraq, teaching fellow soldiers how to detect hidden dangers in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

But if all goes according to plan, Marengo County’s 200th will return to their jobs, their lives and the safety of home later this month.

National Guard Col. (Ret.) Virgil Gray – director of the Guard’s southwest Alabama Family Assistance Center – said the unit should arrive at its headquarters in Linden on Monday, Jan. 16. A homecoming celebration is planned for 11 a.m. that morning.

Engineering battalions usually focus on clearing and building roads, bridges and airfields, but the mobilization of the 200th required a crash course in mine-sweeping.

After the major combat operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the chief danger to American military personnel became mines and improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents.

So the 200th was called up and given orders to help establish the Mine and Explosives Information Operations Coordination Center. They were trained for the task at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

Then they established the MEIOCC at Camp Victory, near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

According to Soldier Magazine, an Army publication that wrote a March 20 feature on the unit’s efforts, “the MEIOCC is responsible for managing and tracking all of the explosive hazards in the Operation Iraqi Freedom theater.”

This mission includes improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance. Members of the 200th also track the operations and finding of several non-governmental organizations in Iraq who specialize in clearing mine fields, said Lt. Col. Eddie Porter, commander, 200th Engineering Battalion and MEIOCC.

The battalion mobilized onto active-duty status Dec. 18, 2004, to prepare for their deployment. They rushed to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to train and learn as much they could about their upcoming role in operating a MEIOCC in a combat zone.

Porter said that when he and his soldiers received the order and mission for their deployment to Baghdad, they had no idea what they were getting into.

“We didn’t even know what a MEIOCC was,” he said.

Gray said the unit should be boarding a plane out of Baghdad later this week, though military flights, he added, “are fluid and flexible until they actually get into the air.”

The unit’s homecoming day, Gray said, has already been postponed four times.

On Jan. 16, the 42 members of the 200th will be honored. Around 37 of them will fly into Camp Shelby in Mississippi from the Iraqi theatre. A handful who were sent home early will also be honored during the ceremony.