When Col. Eric Kerska talks about the Minnesota Red Bulls' convoy missions in Kuwait, he can't help but call them grueling.
"It's a brutal life. It's long, long nights on the road, wearing all your equipment and being vigilant," Kerska said.
For one thing, the Red Bulls arrived in Kuwait in the middle of summer when temperatures topped 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Since then, troops have traveled into and out of Iraq, to haul thousands of pieces of equipment and provide security for other American troops leaving the war zone.
"When they get to where they're going, you know, they're sleeping conditions aren't the best," Kerska said. "They're trying to sleep during the day and drive at night, and it's a hard life."
Minnesota's Red Bull soldiers — Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division — are serving in Kuwait as part of the National Guard's largest deployment since World War II. Kerska, of Rochester, Minn., is on his third deployment to the region — but this is his first as commander.
More than a third of the Red Bulls soldiers have been previously deployed, including Kerska. But unlike his two previous deployments, being the one in charge this time around weighs heavily on him, Kerska said.
"I feel like a worried dad every night when the kids are out in the car, waiting for a phone call," Kerska said. "No matter what we do — we've got 4,000 soldiers, heavy equipment, traffic on the roads. We've got some people out there that would like to do us harm, you know, it's not a safe world out there. I'm always concerned for their welfare."
The Red Bull soldiers come from all over Minnesota and 15 other states. In the three months they've been in Kuwait, no soldiers have been killed or seriously injured.
Day in and day out, about half the Red Bull soldiers are assigned to convoy missions, Kerska said. The other half live and work on base in Kuwait, helping other soldiers as they complete their deployment and leave Iraq. Since arriving in Kuwait in July, Kerska said Minnesota soldiers have helped thousands of other soldiers passing through the bases.
"Picture soldiers moving from one location back to home station. They have to live somewhere. They have to eat, they have to have showers and places to sleep and some entertainment," Kerska said. "The base management guys do all that life support stuff to make the transients life a little bit better."
The Red Bulls are in Kuwait to provide security for Operation New Dawn, the military's withdrawal from Iraq. In late October, President Barack Obama announced that all troops will withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. However, withdrawing troops from Iraq doesn't mean an early end to their mission in Kuwait, Kerska said.
"Our mission is not over at the first of the year. Our mission will just change to something else. But they'll be plenty of work for us to do here in Kuwait in support of the first of the year's change in command," he said.
Kerska has told his troops not to get bogged down by the uncertainty of what may happen when their convoy missions end after the New Year. Soldiers will have time to train and work on other skills. His officers are currently setting up joint-training exercises with the Kuwaiti National Guard.
"We're just going to keep doing whatever they tell us to do and we're going to take care of each other," Kerska said. "And we're going to come home preserving the honor of the brigade.
On New Year's Eve, the Red Bulls will commemorate the end of the eight-year-old Iraq war from their base in Kuwait. They expect to come back home to Minnesota by late spring.