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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of February 19 - 25, 2003


Budget officer prepares for possible war

Express Staff Writer

If the United States goes to war with Iraq, the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office may have to find a new budget officer.

Heather Saunders, 43, handles that job as well as her part-time training with the Idaho Army National Guard. Saunders’ unit is part of the 116th Cavalry Brigade, stationed in Boise and made up of soldiers from Idaho, Montana and Oregon. She said that neither she nor anyone she’s talked to has any idea whether the brigade will be called up in the event of war.

"It certainly would affect us," said Sheriff Walt Femling. "We have a $2 million budget and she does all our bills and claims. We would probably have to retrain somebody." A resident of Richfield, Saunders is a personnel services specialist in the National Guard. That means she’s responsible for making sure that soldiers have their wills and life insurance policies in order, and that their families are taken care of while they’re gone. She’s also responsible for maintaining communications through the Red Cross about any family emergencies.

"I make sure they don’t have anything to worry about while they’re out there," she said.

It also means helping with the disposition of their estates if they don’t come back.

However, Saunders said, she would probably delegate all those responsibilities and go to Iraq herself if the brigade ships out. Over there, she would track the whereabouts of the brigade’s units. That could be important if any command posts get taken out in battle.

That would put her close to the action, but army regulations prohibit her, or any woman, from participating in combat. However, Saunders said, she’s trained for it if the occasion arises. She drills one weekend per month with a battalion in Twin Falls and spends two weeks each summer at the Orchard Training Area near Boise. The 138,000-acre training area, within the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, is used for infantry combat and tank training. When a hawk or eagle appears, she said, it gets the right of way.

Before joining the National Guard in 1999, Saunders spent five years on active duty in the Army, stationed in Japan. She played clarinet in the 290th Army Band.

The Idaho National Guard has a dual role. When called up for military duty, it falls under the command of the U.S. Army. In peacetime, it is under the command of the governor of Idaho, and available to help with emergencies such as forest fires and floods.

"I have a lot of fun with it," Saunders said of her training. "I think it’s great."

Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, Idaho National Guard public affairs officer, said four units in the state have been recently called to active duty. Last week, 24 soldiers in a unit from Driggs were sent to Ft. Lewis, Wash., where they will spend a couple of weeks training and getting their paperwork processed before receiving further orders. A total of 168 soldiers from units in Boise, Post Falls and Preston had earlier been called up to take over security detail at several U.S. Air Force bases from soldiers who had headed to the Middle East.

Saunders’ answers to questions indicate an ambivalence about the prospect of war with Iraq, but that she’s prepared to go if called.

"I wish there were a way to avoid it, but I don’t think there’s going to be. They’re just dancing around too much over there."

When in Japan, Saunders visited the Hiroshima Peace Park. She said the main thing she took away with her was the thought that such things should never again be allowed to happen to people. In the current situation, she said, the best way to do that may be to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s ability to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

"If you see a wrong being committed, and you don’t do anything about it, you might as well be committing it yourself," she said.

Saunders said the advisability of attacking Iraq is a frequent topic of conversation among National Guardsmen.

"They feel their job is to keep the peace, not break it, but if the time comes and we have to go out there, then we’re trained for it."

Saunders said she understands the feelings of those who oppose war, and only asks that they don’t blame the soldiers, who will be following orders. Those who took their anger out on soldiers during the Vietnam War, she said, were a disgrace.

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