Herald JournalHerald Journal, Feb. 28, 2005

Even after being overseas 13 months, Dongoski and daughter ‘never missed a beat’

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Even though she missed her daughter’s first birthday and first steps – Cathy Dongoski and her daughter Riley “never missed a beat with each other.”

Dongoski, originally from Montrose, recently returned home to Monticello from serving overseas for the United States Army Reserves as a staff sergeant in the 452 Quartermaster Company based in Winthrop.

She was gone for 13 months, with just two weeks of leave time in which she could come back home and see her daughter and her fiancé, Justin Osterbauer, originally from Delano.

Using modern technology to keep in touch with Riley, and Osterbauer, Dongoski was able to talk on the phone with Riley and watch DVDs that Justin would send to her.

“Justin was great. He always had pictures of me everywhere, sent me DVDs of her, and always made sure she knew who I was,” Dongoski said. “Even though I wasn’t there, I got to see her growing up, which was nice.”

Riley wasn’t even nine months old when Dongoski left home to serve overseas. Although she got out of active duty in April 2003 when her daughter was born, and entered the Army Reserves, nine months later she was called back, and started the whole process again, back on active duty.

“They gave us the week of Christmas off, and then we were there for another full week, before we left Minnesota Jan. 6,” Dongoski said.

From there, the unit trained at Wisconsin, and did more paperwork. On Feb. 22, it went to Kuwait first, where it received more training, and waited for vehicles, in addition to “hardening” the vehicles.

“The roads are the big threat over in Iraq,” she said. “We just had regular standard military vehicles, but we had to put sandbags on the floors, and put steel on the doors.”

The unit left Kuwait March 17, and it ended up taking four-and-a-half days to make it to Taji, Iraq, where Dongoski was to be stationed.

“We didn’t really know what we were going to do there until we got there,” she said. “I’m a fuel handler, and they said ‘you guys are going to set up an 800,000-gallon fuel farm.’ We didn’t have the equipment for it at all, so we started scrounging, and that was my entire mission. I was in charge of the entire farm – the construction, the running, everything.”

Dongoski contacted some of her previous military contacts from when she was in active duty, and began making arrangements to establish the farm. At one point, a general told her that her fuel farm was the best he had ever seen.

“There’s a big thing between reservists and active duty,” she said. “I was always active duty, so I always thought reservists didn’t know a whole lot or do a whole lot, but when we got there, our reserve company took over all the missions of this active duty company because they couldn’t handle it and they kept dropping missions.”

In addition to the fuel farm, Dongoski also had a platoon that supplied water for the base, as well as one that manned a supply warehouse.

There were between 8,000 and 12,000 American soldiers on one side of the base, and on the other side was the Iraqi National Guard, which also trained there.

“There was a big part of the base we didn’t even go on,” she said. “It was weird because you just never know who the good guys are. You’d talk to these guys, and there would be some guys that were in Saddam’s military working right alongside of us.”

At the end of her time there, about 30 million gallons of fuel went in and out of the fuel farm.

Dongoski said November is the worst month in Iraq, due to the feast of Ramadan.

“That’s a bad, bad month,” she said. “We’d get mortared at least twice a day throughout the whole month. There wasn’t anything real close to us, though.

“The insurgents don’t have any real strategy. They go on the highway, stop, jump out, get in the back of their truck, take a mortar tube and pop off some mortars, jump back in the truck and take off.

“They weren’t aiming at anything, they just pop them off, and run like hell.”

A warm climate, and a warm reception by locals

Dongoski said, overall, the reception her unit received from Iraqi people when it arrived was good.

“They thought it was great we were there, but they didn’t like the fact that the US bombed so much when we first got there, that they didn’t have any power or water,” Dongoski said. “But throughout the year, our engineers reconstructed so much stuff to a better standard. They gave the kids new schools, new school supplies, clothes, shoes, and anything you can imagine was donated to these kids.”

The climate in Iraq is quite different than in Minnesota.

“When we got there in March, it was 70s to 90s during the day, and at night, it would get a little cooler,” Dongoski said. In April, it was in the 100s during the day, and as the summer progressed, the temperatures continued to increase.

“I think the highest was 150-something,” she said. “They always say it’s desert over there, and there’s no humidity – but Iraq isn’t desert. It’s not as green as here, but it’s not sand. It’s mud and dirt and date trees.”

Because of the intense heat, the unit would begin work as early as 4 a.m. until about noon, and you couldn’t work anymore because it was so hot. There were 32 members in the platoon, plus civilian assistants, many of whom were ex-military personnel.

She also had unpleasant encounters with “sand fleas,” which are like little gnats, she said.

“I didn’t get bit too bad because I kept bug spray and DEET on, and kept a net over my bed, but some of them can get through the net, and some people had their legs and arms completely bit up,” she said.

Bottled water was also a constant presence wherever Dongoski went, and she said soldiers are supposed to drink three to five one-and-a-half liter bottles a day.

“You get so tired of drinking water, but you can’t stop drinking it,” she said, noting that people would send lemonade and Kool-Aid mixes over.

Featured on KARE 11

Upon returning to Winthrop in early February, Dongoski said she could see a television camera focused directly on Riley.

“They told us KARE 11 was going to be there, and they had the camera right on my daughter,” Dongoski said. “From the beginning, when they got there, they started videotaping, and they saw Riley, and they’re like ‘Is this someone’s daughter?’ and they (Dongoski’s family) told them her mom was coming home, which was a little different than the guy coming home.

“They put a microphone on Justin, and when I got off this bus, Justin said ‘look, there’s mommy,’ and Riley is just throwing herself out of his arms trying to get at me – it was so great. We didn’t miss a beat. We ended up being gone 13 months, but I didn’t even miss a beat with her.

“Justin was holding her, and I walked up and there’s just this whole group,” she said.

“There were 23 people there from my family in Winthrop,” Dongoski said. “That was great.” All seven of Dongoski’s brothers and sisters were there, her nieces and nephews, and friends.

She left Iraq Jan. 4, spent some time in Kuwait, and made it back stateside in early February, flying into Maine.

“When we touched down in Maine, they had 30 or 40 vets all lined up, shaking our hands when we came off,” Dongoski said. “They handed cell phones to us and said ‘here, call home and tell them you’re back in the states.’ That was awesome.”

From Maine, the unit flew back to Wisconsin, and was bussed back to Winthrop.

Dongoski graduated in 1996 from Buffalo High School, and joined the military in May 1997. She spent time stationed at Fort Louis, Wash., and then was stationed in Germany for three years. She was also in Fort Riley, Kansas.

In 1999, she worked in Albania, and on peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, working on a fuel farm.

She went into the military in the first place for college money.

“They told me I could see the world, and I said ‘alright,’” she said. At first, Dongoski planned on being in for just two years, but the more years she was active, the more college money she was eligible to receive. She currently has a large college fund, but said her plans are currently undecided. She is interested in starting her own business.

One thing that is in her future are wedding bells. Dongoski and Osterbauer plan to be married in September, and are planning on having a few more children. If she didn’t have a fiancé and a daughter, she would have stayed on active duty.

“It’s great being home,” she said. “I had a lot of support from church, family, and friends.”

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