In a large hanger at the downtown St. Paul airport, 23-year-old Minnesota Army National Guard Specialist James Eischen has spent the morning loading and testing new radio frequencies on Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters.
Eischen is one of 723 Minnesota soldiers from the St. Paul-based 34th Combat Aviation Brigade headed for Iraq. He moved into active status at the beginning of the year to help prepare several Minnesota-based Blackhawk's for the trip.
"We've heard rumors of a deployment for a little over a year now. The actual dates have changed several times, but we knew it was coming up," Eischen said.
The deployment will take Eischen and the rest of the brigade to Balad Air Base, the sprawling center of logistics for the U.S. military in Iraq, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Eischen and the bulk of the brigade will leave for Iraq after three months of training in Oklahoma that begins in June. He's leaving behind his theater lighting design courses at University of Minnesota-Duluth. He plans to pick up his classes when he returns in the summer of 2009.
"I always knew that deployment was a possibility...when I enlisted, and I picked a job that I thought I'd be interested in and I am. We should be pretty busy over there and I'm really looking forward to the experience. It's kind of an adventure," said Eischen.
Most of the Minnesotans who are members of the brigade will work in aircraft maintenance and handle brigade administrative jobs. The Minnesota-based brigade is comprised of soldiers from 11 states along with a unit that's based in Germany. In all it will have about 2,500 members. Most of its more than 100 helicopters will come from other states.
Outside the hangar, crew chief Sgt. Reid Ronning prepares a Blackhawk for training flight over Minnesota and Wisconsin. The same helicopter will be flying over Iraq by late summer.
"Basically I'm responsible for the overall operation and maintenance of this aircraft," he said.
Ronning and two pilots fly the Blackhawk from St. Paul, east to the St. Croix river. They follow a predetermined course into the Red Wing airport for a quick landing and take off. Then they're off to Pepin, Wisc., and Lake City, Cannon Falls, Rosemount, and then back to downtown St. Paul.
In Iraq, the unit will likely be providing air ambulance services for the Marines in Anbar province.
While more than 700 Minnesotans are deploying with the 34th, the latest deployment is far smaller than the deployment two years ago when 2,600 Minnesotans were sent to Iraq with the 1st Brigade Combat team. That brigade returned last summer. It was comprised of ground based troops primarily responsible for base and convoy security.
The troops in this deployment will fly and support a wide variety of helicopter missions all over Iraq, according to the commander of the 34th Combat Aviation Brigade, Col. R. Clay Brock.
"That would include air movement for personnel throughout the core sector, providing air assault services, attack operations and then movement of logistical supplies," Brock said.
For 34-year-old Staff Sgt. Rudy Gomez this deployment will be his second to Iraq. Gomez is a mechanic and crew chief who's been busy lining up spare parts and other maintenance related items for the trip. He's looking forward to seeing how the county has changed since he was there four years ago with another Army division.
"I remember when we first drove into Iraq, the kids were staring, no shoes, it just looked pretty battered," Gomez said. "And from what I hear now, they got the police going, they voted and all this and I guess I want to see what I started."
At home Gomez is preparing his kids for the long separation to come. It's a lot easier to talk to his four-year-old daughter Kassidi than it is explaining it to his nine-year-old son Noah, he said.
"He asks me questions like, 'What if you have to kill somebody?' And I'm like well, if it's between me and somebody else and me coming home, then I'll do it. Then he'll ask, 'What if that's someone's else's dad and he doesn't come home?' You know, sometimes it's hard to answer something like that to a kid." Gomez said.
The deployment of Gomez's unit means other troops will get to come home.
Speaking from the base in Iraq where most the 34th is heading, Maj. Shawn Manke said for his unit work night and day revolves around keeping helicopters in good flying condition. Manke is the second-in-command of a Minnesota Guard Assault Helicopter Battalion that the 34th will replace.
The best training his brigade got came just prior to its deployment late last summer and involved flying and maintenance activity that brought together all of the various units from the different states.
Manke offered this advice to the troops who preparing to replace him and his unit.
"Spend as much time as they can with their family. Cement those bonds. Spend time while you can with your children., with tour wife or your mother, your father, whatever the case may be," Manke said.
Out-of-state elements of Minnesota's 34th Combat Aviation Brigade are already moving into Iraq.
The Minnesota troops will leave for training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in June. They will be on the ground in Iraq by this fall.