A ceremony marking the end of the Iraq war took place in Baghdad today. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta helped retire the U.S. Forces-Iraq flag and told American troops they leave with the knowledge that their sacrifice "has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history."
But today's news does not mean an end to all U.S. forces there. More than 2,600 Minnesota National Guard members, led by Col. Eric Kerska, are on duty in the region until May 2012. The Red Bulls have been taking over security operations in Kuwait and are part of the largest deployment of Minnesota Guard members since World War II. Col. Kerska's wife, Tina Kerska, spoke with MPR's All Things Considered.
Tom Crann: What's your reaction as you see all the coverage of the "official" end to the war, when you and other family members are still dealing with it?
Tina Kerska: I have had a lot of calls lately saying, is my husband coming home, is my boyfriend coming home, and actually our approximately 2,700 soldiers will not be coming home early, so I know it's kind of disappointing, but they do have a mission over there and it has to be completed before they can come home.
Crann: Tell us a little more about the mission as you know it.
Kerska: I believe they will get everyone from Iraq to Kuwait, turn in equipment and just kind of tie everything up.
Crann: What are you and the other families going through with the Red Bulls gone?
Kerska: I think just the emotional rollercoaster that you're on, having a loved one over there. Everyone asks us how we're doing. Well, we're doing fine; we have a wonderful support system with our family with the civilian jobs that the soldiers have. But emotionally it's hard for everyone.
Crann: How often are you in touch with your husband, and has the communication been made easier with Skype and the Internet?
Kerska: I talk to him almost everyday on Skype.
Crann: Has that changed since the first deployment?
Kerska: Absolutely. During the first deployment I had no contact with him for seven months. I didn't know where he was, nothing. The second deployment he would make phone calls, but this deployment is now on Skype, which is wonderful. I talk to him almost every day.
Crann: What's the last report you heard from your husband?
Kerska: He is doing a few more convoys. It looks like almost all the soldiers will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31 of this year.
Crann: It's the holiday time and I'm sure a lot of families are missing the troops abroad. Can you give us an idea of how close the Red Bull families have been with each other?
Kerska: We do have a wonderful support group with the family readiness group and with Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. They do help out with anything that the families would need. If there's snow to be shoveled, which there isn't much yet this year, a lot of resources where they can have babysitting, free travel to the mall to get their presents. Families here do have plenty of resources to get through this holiday season.
Crann: And emotional support as well for each other?
Kerska: Absolutely, yes.
Crann: How much a part of your life is worry for your husband and hopes that his troops will get back safely?
Kerska: 100 percent! I do worry about that. I don't have any doubt in my mind that they all will come back safe, and they're just very well-trained soldiers.
Crann: After three deployments, has this ever felt like it's become sort of a new normal for you?
Kerska: Somewhat, yes, it's a good question, but yes. Especially when he just got off the 23-month deployment [in 2005] so he was home for three years and then left again [in 2009].
Crann: What are you looking forward to the most when your husband is back?
Kerska: Just spending time with him and our kids. I'm just ready for it to be over, to be perfectly honest.
(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar)
RED BULLS 101:
More than 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division are serving a one-year tour of duty in Kuwait. Nicknamed the Red Bulls, the unit is in its third deployment to the region. It's the largest deployment for the unit since World War II.
The soldiers represent more than 500 communities throughout Minnesota and 15 other states. About 40 percent of the soldiers have been deployed previously.
About 300 troops from Oklahoma are also serving with the Red Bulls.
The soldiers are based in Kuwait but have traveled into and out of Iraq to haul thousands of pieces of equipment and provide security for other American troops leaving Iraq. While most U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by year's end, the Red Bulls will stay in Kuwait and are expected to return to Minnesota in May 2012. On New Year's Eve, the Red Bulls plan to commemorate the end of the 8-year-old Iraq war from their base.
Previously, about 2,500 Red Bulls were deployed to Iraq in 2005 and served for 22 months after the Pentagon extended their stay. A smaller group of Minnesota Red Bulls also served in Iraq in 2009.