Nearly 3,000 Minnesota National Guard soldiers return home this month after serving a year in Afghanistan and Kuwait. After ten years of regular deployments, Minnesota Guard troops will largely be home by May. What's happened to Minnesota's citizen-soldier force in the decade? What happens next?
Minnesota National Guard - the basics
The Guard is a force of citizen-soldiers the governor can mobilize in peacetime to help during floods and other disasters. The federal government calls on the Guard in war time to fight and support military operations overseas. Minnesota's force traces its origins to the Pioneer Guard militia formed in 1856, before statehood. It's served in every major American conflict since then.
More than 25,000 Minnesota guardsmen have been deployed around the globe during the War on Terror that began with the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There are nearly 14,000 in the state Guard currently, including 11,000 soldiers and 2,000 airmen. They typically train a weekend per month and a two-week stretch during the year. For their service, they earn pay and benefits that vary with rank and duty status. An active duty specialist/corporal in the National Guard earns between $1,915 and $2,326 a month.
What did Minnesota's Guard do overseas?
Minnesota Guard units served around the world the past 10 years, but their largest roles came in Iraq and Afghanistan where guardsmen have fought in combat and provided combat support.
The Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division -- the Red Bulls -- holds the record for the longest serving unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
What happens when guardsmen return?
When they return, Minnesota guardsmen go through a basic routine:
"As our Minnesota National Guard soldiers arrive at the demobilization sites, they will undergo medical and dental examinations, attend briefings on federal and state benefits, conduct equipment turn-in and complete administrative documentation," Army Maj. Gerald D. Halloran said in early April.
"Once they complete these tasks, we'll send them home to Minnesota on chartered flights to Minneapolis. The final travel includes a bus ride to their respective armories."
Beyond the bus ride, though, some guardsmen face plenty of physical and emotional challenges as they return.
MPR News reporter Tom Robertson wrote two years ago about the challenge of some Minnesota guardsmen returning home from war, highlighting the struggles of Greg Roberts, a former Minnesota National Guard staff sergeant trying to reclaim his civilian life.
"It's something I did not anticipate...coming home and having it be a more difficult experience than actually being deployed," Roberts said. "I was pretty much emotionally dead and I still deal with that now."
Mental health problems are a constant worry as soldiers return from combat operations.
"The Minnesota National Guard began tracking suicide data in 2007. Since then, 24 citizen soldiers have taken their own lives. That's the most of any state," writes MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire.
Guard officials note that while concerning, two-thirds of the soldiers who committed suicide had never deployed and so their suicides are not the result of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only two of the 24 suicides occurred among active duty soldiers, Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, adjutant general of Minnesota, told lawmakers in December.
Nash also told lawmakers that 34 soldiers sought help in a program for those who may be at risk of suicide.
What kind of job market awaits Minnesota service people as they return?
Not great. While the situation is better now than in the depths of the reception, it's still a challenge for military members to find work.
"The Guard says about 19 percent of its 2,700 members will face unemployment when they get back from Kuwait in May," MPR News reporter Elizabeth Baier writes. Unemployment rates for Minnesota veterans are more than three times the state's overall unemployment rate of 5.7 percent, she adds.
Part of the challenge is to convince employers that guardsmen can transition easily from military service back into civilian life.
It's a stigma that can be difficult for soldiers to overcome.
However, there are increasing efforts to help veterans return to the workplace, including new employer tax incentives.
Colleges and universities are also doing a lot to accommodate a crush of veterans seeking degrees after their service. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system had 10,644 veterans and service members enrolled in 2011, up 57 percent from 2008. Minneapolis Community and Technical College saw its enrollment of service members nearly double between 2008 and 2010.
What happens to the Guard when deployments end?
"Now the fighting is over so we're going back into that train mode, which is the life of an army unit," the Red Bulls' Col. Eric Kerska told MPR News in January.
"We'll just continue to train, continue to manage the bases and the brigade will be much better trained by the time we get home."