One weekend a month
Capt. Brian Dean, company commander of the National Guard's forward support troops in Northeastern Oregon, says there's room for more troops at the Baker City Armory.
The Baker City detachment is authorized for up to 89 troops, and it currently has 66, or 74 percent of capacity.
"We're always actively recruiting," Dean said.
For Eastern Oregon's battalion, which is authorized at up to about 1,000 troops, there are about 100 openings, Dean said, although "they're starting to fill up fast."
There's room for mechanics, welders, cooks, transportation specialists and other job descriptions even if they're jobs that aren't featured at the local detachment, Dean said. That policy allows a recruit with a particular skill to be assigned to one unit, but drill one weekend a month and two weeks each summer with a different unit.
Recruits should be 18 years old or more and generally in good health. But recruits who could stand to lose a few pounds can find help with National Guard weight-loss specialists, Dean said.
There's still money to be made through service to one's country, including a $20,000 signing bonus, Dean said.
The Baker City Armory is at 1640 Campbell St.
More information about service in the National Guard is available by calling area recruiter Sgt. First Class Jim Way at 541/889-5514 or 541/709-1046.
By MIKE FERGUSON
An engineering student at Oregon State University during the week and a soldier one weekend a month and two weeks every summer, Spec. Matthew Foster, 22, says he knew that enlisting in the National Guard almost five years ago could take him far from Baker City.
And it has. Foster, who trained with about a dozen other soldiers one weekend last month at the Baker City Armory, served more than a year with his unit in Kirkuk, Iraq, from 2004-05.
"I knew when I enlisted I could go somewhere," he said during his weekend spent at the Baker City Armory. During an interview, Foster was performing that most basic duty of a soldier: cleaning his M-16 A-2 weapon.
"I enlisted for the college money and for a little adventure, and I'd volunteer again. I think we're doing a heckuva job there and we need to keep at it."
Foster said he's "a little depressed" watching televised news accounts that depict how difficult the war effort has become.
"What you don't see are the schools we helped them get back into, the students in their school uniforms. We've helped the Iraqi economy, and we've prepared Iraqis to do the work of enforcing their laws" after U.S. troops are sent home, he said. "The Kurdish people are behind us."
Added Sgt. Wes Christensen of Baker City, who cleaned his weapon and checked the work of other soldiers as they completed cleaning and reassembling their M-16: "I think most people there want to be free."
Christensen and Foster served side by side in Kirkuk as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. It'll probably be many months perhaps as many as three years before they're again called to serve in the war zone, Christensen said. Their battalion is being re-formed, and recovering, storing and remobilizing all the battalion's equipment is a fairly monumental task.
But just because they're not actively fighting doesn't mean Guardsmen aren't serving their fellow Oregonians. For example, during fire season, volunteers are in heavy demand for fire suppression activities, Christensen said.
Weekend activity can fall into the category of banal, soldiers say, and cleaning weapons is about as tedious as the work can get.
"It's a basic weapon, but still it has a lot of parts," Foster noted.
To clean their weapons, soldiers use cotton swabs, cotton cloths, various degunking compounds (including brake fluid) and plenty of elbow grease.
The weekend isn't all tedium. Once a year, Guardsman are given physical training and shooting tests. On this weekend in mid-October, the shooting range at the Baker Armory was not operational, so marksmanship tests were administered instead at the La Grande Armory.
Christensen displayed a target he shot up during his own test. It featured at least a dozen holes that met or nearly met their mark.
Still, he downplayed his weapons skills.
"I'm only an average marksman," he said. "Most of us grew up hunting."
The test for PT, for physical training, is more demanding. Soldiers must run, run with a pack on their backs, and do sit ups and pushups. In every category they must meet or exceed a standard that's based on their age.
The standard, Christensen pointed out, is easier to meet when the soldier is young and undergoing basic training. It's also less of a burden for active-duty soldiers, who "do PT every single day," he said.
Still, the limited number of soldiers who are at the Baker City Armory for this weekend of service by Sunday afternoon, only about eight soldiers remained did fine on their PT test. Once the standard is met once, the soldier is good for the entire year.
How fit he or she remains during the year is up to the soldier.
When the questions turn to service in Kirkuk, the soldiers' task at hand cleaning and then reassembling and checking weapons seems more vital than just a make-work weekend chore.
Foster said that the danger of serving in a war zone "isn't something you focus on. You just go about your duty and don't spend time being scared."
The food there is great, soldiers agree. A civilian contractor who fed men and women in the unit received high marks for steak and lobster night, "which they served us from time to time," Foster remembered with a broad smile.
E-mail and telephone service make communication with loved ones fairly simple, and a host of amenities a gymnasium, pool hall, weightlifting competitions, flag football games and boxing matches "work to keep your mind off things," Foster said.
Still, more than a year away from home, familiar surroundings and loved ones "is a little tough," he said.
Foster said he enjoys his weekends in Baker City, both for time spent with his fellow soldiers and for time to visit family and friends. In his car on the way back to Corvallis on Sunday nights after his Guard duty, "I'll kind of smile and remember the things we did" during his monthly time as citizen/soldier.
A 22-year-old freshman at OSU, Foster said he's eager to complete his engineering degree. But he's glad he's been able to blend military service with his education.
"I'd like to get done with college, but I have no regrets" over enlisting and war being declared, he said. "I'm glad I can help."