On Wednesday the plan was to feed nearly 8,000 diners, half of them soldiers, the other 4,000 were their friends and family members.
The volunteers from Minnesota, who made the trip south with truckloads of food and drink, pulled off the "Serving Our Soldiers" celebration. Even the weather turned out perfect.
St. Paul City Councilman Pat Harris is largely credited with the idea of taking steak dinners to the troops.
"It's all about a message of support from our community and our state and when you see that steak dinner and you see all of these people coming through, it is a humbling thing and I think everybody in our team feels that way," Harris said. Harris and the some 70 others from the St. Paul group handed out the meals to the troops.
Guard soldier Justin Butkiewiczand his pregnant wife, Spring, both of Cloquet, were among them. "It's definitely nice. It's nice to be together and finally see him and to be able to say goodbye in person instead of over the phone."
The Newmanns, of Eagan, sat inside of one of the two gigantic tents set up for the meal. Don Newmann is a Guard soldier. His wife, Ann, and their children Nick, Leah and Travis drove down to Camp Shelby so they could be together before Don departs for Iraq.
"It's really nice to spend some time together. It was a long drive down here, but worth it. It's really good to see him before he goes," Ann Newmann said.
"It's exciting," says Don Newmann. "I haven't seen them since Christmas, so it's good to see how they have grown and just to see the joy in their faces when you get to meet again. It's just an overall blast."
This has been a complicated time for the troops and their loved ones. They've undergone a mix of emotions. On the one hand, they are celebrating the completion of six months of training away from home at an aging military post, seemingly devoid of comfort. On the other, the completion of that training means their deployment is imminent.
In an interview in November 2005 at the camp, Sgt. Corey Schmidt told Minnesota Public Radio that the more training he got, the better. After all the months of instruction, Schmidt says he has learned a lot that will come in extremely useful.
"I don't know if I want to say that I feel like I am ready to go to Iraq; I don't think anyone really is, but I have a mindset that, yeah, I can do it," he says.
Staff Sgt. Jacie Swanson from Shoreview, another medic, says she is also scheduled to depart. In an interview last fall, Swanson said the training was building her confidence. Now, on the way out of Camp Shelby and into Iraq, Swanson says she's prepared.
"Right now I feel really confident and there are a bunch of feelings that go through me right now with thinking that we're going to Iraq," she says. "I am anxious, nervous, excited."
She's excited, Swanson says, because the sooner she is in Iraq, the sooner her year-long deployment will be over.
In addition to friends and family, several politicians were on hand to wish the soldiers well, among them Minnesota's two U.S. senators -- Norm Coleman, a Republican and Democrat Mark Dayton. Both flew in from Washington on a military jet for the afternoon with a couple of other members of the Minnesota delegation.
The deployment of Minnesota's 1st Brigade coincides with the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is also comes at a time of dramatic erosion in support for the war. A new Gallup poll found two of every three Americans think President Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq.
Asked whether public sentiment puts a cloud over the massive Minnesota deployment, Dayton said "we're down here as a bipartisan group to say that we absolutely support what they're doing. They're carrying out the orders of their commander-in-chief. The message loud and strong is: 'we may have different political views, but we support our troops. We support the Minnesotans who are here. We've got nothing but admiration for them,'" Dayton said.
"I understand the frustration, folks want the war to be over," Sen. Norm Coleman said. "On the other hand there's a mission to be done and we're not going to fail; we're going to be successful. And these people have great spirit and those who come back also have that same great spirit," Coleman said.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was also at the picnic. He'll speak at Thursday's formal departure ceremony.
Military officials say the entire Minnesota brigade will be on the ground in Iraq by the end of next month or early May at the latest. They will not say exactly what the unit's mission will be.
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