Minnesota National Guard Col. Eric Kerska considers himself "one of the old timers."
The commander of the Minnesota Red Bulls was deployed to the region in the first Gulf War two decades ago, and returned for a long deployment in the second Gulf War.
He's now embarked on what he hopes will be his final deployment -- leading the Red Bulls as they take over security operations in Kuwait. Twenty-four hundred soldiers in this deployment makes it the 2nd-largest for the Minnesota National Guard since World War II.
"I've kind of seen it from beginning to end," Kerska said. "If there is a good news story for me, that's it. Might be able to tie a bow on this thing."
The Rochester native expects to be home in the spring of 2012.
"I can't speak for all soldiers, but I don't know anybody that wants to leave home and leave their family and leave their job and go overseas to do work like this," he told MPR News on Friday. "Nobody relishes doing that. But for me, if I have to go and leave my family and my job again -- I suppose it's a stretch to say I'm excited, but I'm certainly proud that it's looking like I might be able to put closure on something that's heavily involved myself and my family my entire adult life."
Kerska, who is in Kuwait, spoke with MPR's Tom Crann Friday about the Minnesota National Guard's role in Operation New Dawn -- the name given to the U.S. drawdown phase in Iraq.
An edited transcript of that conversation is below.
Tom Crann: It's my understanding, Col. Kerska, that the Red Bulls will be providing cover as the military begins its drawdown or withdrawal from Iraq. Is that a fair way to characterize the mission?
Col. Eric Kerska: Yes, this is Operation New Dawn. It's the drawdown phase of military operations in Iraq. And our Minnesota soldiers, we're going to play a very important role in that final drawdown. First Brigade soldiers, we're going to be stationed in Kuwait, performing base management, force protection and route security operations, in support of those forces. Right now we're in the process of taking the mission over from the 197th Brigade out of New Hampshire.
Crann: And for this deployment, which is your third in the region, you are the commander. How has that changed life for you?
Kerska: To put it simply I'm now responsible for everything, everything good and bad. I've never been in those shoes before. Last time I was the operations officer, but it feels a little bit heavier on my shoulders now than it did last time.
Crann: You've said that a leader's job is to protect a soldier from himself. What do you mean? Tell us a little more about that.
Kerska: I developed the theory on the last deployment that most of the dangers that a soldier faces are from actions or inactions of the soldier himself, for the most part. So that's kind of one of my buzz phrases I use to keep my leader's head in the game is, 'Our job is to protect our soldiers from themselves,' meaning making sure they do the things they're supposed to do and stop them from doing the things they shouldn't be doing, if that makes any sense.
Crann: Tell us a little more about the work that the Minnesota soldiers will be doing in the coming months?
Kerska: To put it simply, our job is to support the drawdown from Iraq, and to us that means we have to provide security to soldiers and equipment as it passes out of Iraq back home. So that means there's a bunch of bases in Kuwait where soldiers and equipment will be coming to as a first step to getting home, so we have to provide the base management.
We have to provide security for those bases. We move soldiers and we move equipment. Our job is to protect that as it's moving. We have to protect convoys throughout the region, not just Iraq, which requires some security.
And we also have some response forces available if something were to crop up and we'd need to provide some additional security in other places, that would be our job. So again, to put it simply, our job is to provide security to the soldiers that are leaving Iraq and the equipment as it leaves Iraq.
Crann: What do you see the biggest challenge is with that work?
Kerska: The biggest challenge I guess initially is going to be it's so complex. We've got lots of different bases, lots of different routes, new headquarters, new partners with other units. It's just a very complex mission, lots of little moving pieces. It's very difficult for me to describe to the folks back home the level of complexity.
So early on, we have to learn those things, and that's what we're doing right now. Right now, the Army calls us the "right seat, left seat ride." So we got here and we were in the passenger's seat while the 197th Brigade was driving, and we're watching them as they drove, as they went through their mission. So every soldier's paired up with somebody that's been doing the job for the last up to a year.
Now we're in the transition phase, where now we're in the left seat, we're in the driver's seat, so we're doing the mission. The Red Bulls are doing the mission now today and have been for over a week, but the guys that we're replacing from New Hampshire, they're in the passenger's seat. They're watching us, so they can give us advice.
They're still technically responsible, but we're doing the work, and they're there so they can stop us before we do something not so smart, or we can ask questions. So we're in that transition phase to learn all these complexities.
Now, the mission never stays the same. It's a constantly changing thing, so we're doing, we've picked up some additional missions that the guys we're replacing aren't familiar with, so we've got to learn some of that stuff on our own as we go, but it's a complex mission. So, early on, that's the challenge is the complexity of it.
Crann: And you have seen this, in effect, from the beginning. What has changed with the way you approach it, and also troop morale now as opposed to your last deployment?
Kerska: The first Gulf War was different, obviously. It was conventional warfare, and since 2003, we've being fighting a counterinsurgency, so those are two different things, totally different things. What we do day-to-day is often the same. The Army's the Army. It's pretty much timeless.
Troop morale is excellent. I've been in the Army and the Guard for the last 29 years, seven of it in the Army, the rest of it in the Guard, and I've never seen the Guard so full as it's been since 9/11. Sometimes you hear stuff in the press about, 'Our young Guard soldiers didn't sign up to do this. They signed up for the college money,' and I can tell you that's false. That's wrong.
Every soldier that's joined the Guard since 9/11 knows and can expect to deploy to a combat zone, but yet we're fuller than we've ever been. So sometimes when they talk about the Greatest Generation, I chuckle and I agree with it, but this generation is -- they're not any weaker. They're stepping up, want to be part of something bigger than themselves, want to contribute, and we've got to turn them away.
You can't get in the Guard right now it's so full. I mean it's a waiting list. So morale is high. They're living in conditions that overall are pretty good, but it's still a tough place to be. And yet they're proud to serve with their battle buddy to their right and their left, and they want to contribute. So morale is great.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this feature incorrectly said the current Red Bull deployment was the largest National Guard deployment in the country's history. The current version is correct.