The 75 soldiers from C Company of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion arrived Monday in Fort McCoy, Wisc. They'll remain there at least one week for medical evaluations and a reintegration program to prepare them to resume civilian life.
Adjutant Gen. Larry Shellito of the Minnesota National Guard says in all, 2,600 men and women from the 1st Brigade Combat Team will be flown from Kuwait to Fort McCoy over the next six weeks.
"The exact dates of specific unit departures from Iraq (are) classified due to operational security concerns," he said. "But our soldiers have been authorized to give their families a general idea of when to expect them home. Having said that, we expect all of our troops to be home by August 1."
These soldiers were mobilized for training back in October 2005. They left for Iraq in March 2006, and were scheduled to return home this spring. The deployment was extended by 125 days when President Bush ordered a troop surge in January. At that time, Shellito described the extension of his troops' time in Iraq as a "raw deal." Six months later, he was pleased to be announcing the brigade's pending return.
"Today's news is indeed light at the end of the tunnel for our Minnesota 1st Brigade soldiers and their families," he said. "The fact remains, however, that until these soldiers arrive at Fort McCoy, they are still in harm's way. I ask our soldiers to stay focused on the mission at hand, and I ask Minnesotans to keep our troops in their prayers to ensure a safe trip back to their families.
Minnesota families have been waiting a long time for their reunions. Kelly Simer of St. Paul says her husband, Joshua, told her he expects to return home closer to August. Simer is eager for the homecoming since the couple's year-old daughter was born during Joshua's deployment.
"I think it's finally time where I can start to feel a little bit excited about having him come home," she said. "He missed out a lot of my daughter's first year. He only got to see her two weeks. So when he comes home, we'll have a lot of catching up to do."
Simer says her husband plans to enroll at the University of Minnesota after his return. Guard officials have been gearing up to make that transition easier for all the returning soldiers. Each unit will hold a series of reintegration workshops over the next few months.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he's counting on the state to welcome the soldiers back with open arms and loving hearts. And he says they'll need a long-term commitment.
"It's going to take weeks and months and -- maybe in some cases -- years to make sure that the reintegration effort is complete and fulfilled. And it's going to vary from soldier to soldier as to the needs of that soldier or their family. But we want to make sure that we're available and active and fully mobilized for them and their families," Pawlenty said.
Welcome-home celebrations are in the works for later in the summer at National Guard armories throughout the state. Gov. Pawlenty is urging the public to remember the thousands of Minnesotans still serving in the National Guard, the Reserve and the active military. He also noted the soldiers who are not coming home. Nine Minnesotans from the 1st Brigade died in Iraq during their deployment.