The largest concentration of Minnesota Guard troops in Iraq is a St. Paul-based assault helicopter battalion stationed at Balad air base.
Balad, located about 40 miles north of Baghdad, is one of the largest and busiest air bases in Iraq. It's commonly called Camp Anaconda -- sometimes "mortaritaville," because of the shells insurgents regularly fire at it.
"For safety, there's bunkers pretty much everywhere for you to go to for cover if needed," says Capt. Andrea Ourada, who grew up in southwestern Minnesota has been a member of the Guard for more than 11 years.
Ourada is one of the 287 Minnesotans in the assault helicopter battalion, which has been stationed in Iraq since August. She pilots Blackhawk helicopters that ferry small groups of troops, contract workers and cargo.
"Last night I flew five and a half hours with night vision goggles," says Ourada. "Our missions take us all throughout Iraq. I was more in the southern part and the eastern part last night. It's very dark at night, there's not much of a moon lately, so night vision goggles are a must."
Ourada declines to offer much in the way of specifics about her flight.
In her month and a half flying over much of Iraq, Ourada says she's become aware how relatively small the country is, and how built-up the U.S. military bases are.
And from her helicopter, she's seen a lot she was not expecting.
"What has surprised me is actually, the country of Iraq. People forget that there is still farmers here, there's still the real people, there's still the true citizens who have nothing to do with this war," says Ourada. "There's the people out there who are just living in their home every day, hoping not to get, you know, bombed by somebody or something."
"You forget that until you go fly over them and see -- there's a guy herding cattle, there's a guy herding his camels, there's some kids out there. And they stand out in their front yards and they wave at you when you fly over," Ourada adds.
Every time she takes off, Ourada says she knows her Blackhawk is a target. The flights are challenging. She and her crew members are constantly on the lookout for adversaries. And there's the sand.
“There's the people [in Iraq] who are just living in their homes every day, hoping not to get, you know, bombed by somebody or something."National Guard Capt. Andrea Ourada
"The sand is very fine. And it's almost like flying in fog or in the clouds. When you're close to the ground the sand blows around."
Ourada the other members of the Assault Helicopter Battalion can expect to be running missions in Iraq through the end of the next summer.
Another 132 Minnesota Guard solders from an engineering company based in Little Falls are in Kuwait right now, preparing to move into Iraq for their year-long deployment. They'll be helping with construction projects on U.S. bases and in Iraqi communities.
Another 118 soldiers from a Litchfield unit are wrapping up training in Mississippi. They'll be in Iraq within the next few weeks.
That's about the same timeframe that 166 Guard troops attached to an east St. Paul-based company, but from throughout Minnesota, will follow, to leave Iraq after their year on the ground. They've been providing security and have been training Iraq forces in areas around, and to the west of, Baghdad.
That's it for Iraq.
There are another 83 soldiers with Roseville-based units working in Kuwait, Qatar and Afghanistan. They're expected home early next year.
A 417-member unit from southern Minnesota is getting ready to leave Germany for a year-long peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Another 55 Minnesota Guard soldiers are serving individual deployments attached to units all over the world, as are two dozen Guard airmen.
"It's important that people know that it really is not over for the Minnesota National Guard," says Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard. "There still are nearly 1,300 Minnesota Army and Air National Guard soldiers and airmen that are deployed all over the world. "
Olson says there are about 13,000 people in the Minnesota Army and Air National Guard. Under the post-9/11 expectations placed on the Guard, Olson says each member should expect to be deployed one year for every six years on the job.
Olson says 7,000 soldiers currently fit that "deployable" status, and it's not a matter of if, but when.
"While we haven't announced any specifics of call-ups of units in the near future, we're prudently preparing for the eventuality of deployment for any number of our National Guard soldiers."
Olson won't say how many of those 7,000 "deployable" soldiers are four or five years into their enlistments, but have not yet been deployed.