SERVING IN THE SINAI PENINSULA

April 04, 2003 11:00 pm
 ().
().

Pilot story by Marjorie Woodfin

Two Brookings-Harbor residents Dr. Sam Ruben and Kalmiopsis school teacher Kelby McCrae returned early this year from nine months active duty with their Oregon National Guard unit.

Ruben and McCrae are members of the Oregon National Guard 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry that was called to active duty last year to prepare and serve in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), keeping watch on the border between Egypt and Israel.

Although they spent only six months on border guard duty in Egypt, the unit was actually on active duty nine months, including preparation and training time and debriefing after their return.

"Gov. Kulongoski and 500 people were waiting in Medford to welcome us home," Ruben said about their return. However, the best-laid plans can be thwarted by weather, and the returning troops had to land in Eugene.

The MFO, which was created in 1982, a result of the 1978 Camp David Accords, includes forces from 11 nations. The active duty U.S. Army troops that have almost exclusively been involved in the Sinai duty were replaced last year by Army National Guard troops, freeing the active duty units for the war on terrorism.

The Oregon National Guard was the second guard group to assume the duty, following Arkansas Army National Guard troops. There were 529 guardsmen in the group, including a few from other units, when the Oregon guard left for the Sinai.

There are 13 observation stations along the Israeli/Egyptian dry desert border and South Camp, the main control center.

Ruben, who is a retired U.S. Army doctor currently employed at Pelican Bay State Prison, said that although they were all happy to come home at the end of the six months, it was a good experience. He came home with four new medals, including an Expert Field Medical Badge, and had an opportunity to do some sightseeing when his wife, Tina, came to visit.

The area, in sight of the Red Sea near South Camp, has been turned into a tourist attraction, with lovely hotels and dive shops on every corner, and the town of Sharm El Sheikh has a population of 10,000 Egyptians and its own commercial airport. Ruben said the troops were given special discounts for accommodations at the fancy hotels.

McCrae, who grew up in a military family, said the hardest part of the duty was being away from his wife, Tawnya and baby Chloe. Chloe was a crawling baby when her father left and when he got home she was a little girl running.

His wife, also a teacher, taught his class in his absence, and she continued to teach for awhile after his return so he could have time to get reacquainted with Chloe.

McCrae's father, a colonel, is full-time military with a guard unit stationed in Salem and his brother serves in the same unit with their father. He said prior to being deployed to the Sinai he had no idea that the United States had troops in the area.

"Overall it was a good experience," McCrae said about the time spent in the Sinai, where he was exposed to so much history. He was able to visit Cairo and inspect the great pyramids, and other ancient sites. He kept in touch with his students, sharing much of what he saw and learned with his class.

The outposts, where the soldiers stood watch in three hour shifts, 23 days on rotated with 23 at South Camp, include four or five trailers in a barbed wire-enclosed area and a watch tower.

The duty was to observe and record all traffic, whether on land, water, or in the air. No military personnel from Egypt or Israel can enter the border zone. Anything unusual is reported to MFO investigators who determine whether a violation has occurred.

According to a National Guard publication, there has been no major violation during the 20-year history of the treaty.

Neither Ruben nor McCrae suffered any financial loss during their nine months of active duty. McCrae said his salary with the guard, because of his length of service and rank, was actually more than his teacher's salary, and Ruben's employer supplemented his military pay to bring it up to his salary at the prison.

Both men are back at their positions, but Ruben says they continue to be on a military hold and can be called back to active duty any time within the next nine months.