Minnesota Guard members prepare for a year in war zone

Major General Rick Nash
Major General Rick Nash will lead the troops when they head to Iraq this spring. Nash says this time the Iraqis will be in charge of day to day operations.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Minnesotans have become accustomed to frequent overseas deployments by the Minnesota National Guard. Since September 11th, 2001, 17,000 troops have been called up for active duty.

But National Guard commanders say the latest big deployment, this time for more than a thousand soldiers, marks a new phase for the guard and for Iraq.

Maj. Gen. Rick Nash will lead the troops when they head to Iraq this spring. This time Iraqis will be in charge of day to day operations, Nash says. His soldiers will assist the Iraqis, along with 16,000 multinational troops.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Hoska
Staff Sgt. Aaron Hoska is preparing to spend the next year on active duty, much of it in Iraq. It will be Hoska's first deployment in Iraq.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"The Iraqi army will take lead on that and will coordinate with us, cooperate with us, we'll do the same. We'll provide them with assets they don't have in order to be successful. And so it's really the partnership that happens with the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police...we will work with them to make them better."

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The 34th Red Bull Infantry Division will have command over much of the southern third of Iraq.

One obvious concern for many people is the safety of the guard members. Violence is down in the region, according to Nash.

"Attacks are almost infrequent. Maybe a couple a day in this entire area. Something the size of Minnesota have two IED (improvised explosive device) attacks is pretty minimal compared to where we were prior to the surge and even after 2004."

Graphic: Soldiers' hometowns
More than 1,000 soldiers from 15 states will deploy to Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

No one is certain of the future security of the region, Nash says. But the recently agreed-to Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S., means Iraqi forces will need to take the lead in dealing with future conflicts, he says.

Minnesota National Guard troops know this is not intended to be a combat mission, but they realize they're heading to a war zone.

"We are preparing to go to combat," says Staff Sgt. Aaron Hoska from Circle Pines.

This is Hoska's first deployment to Iraq, where he'll evaluate security at military bases.

Sgt.Jill Johnson
Sgt. Jill Johnson is part of the 43-member Red Bull band. She'll perform at ceremonies with her French horn. She'll also play keyboard and sing in a country band.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Even though we're serving in a leadership and authority role over other Army units and the coalition, we're still preparing to go to war. That's the cold hard truth of it, and that's what we're operating with."

When Hoska returns to Minnesota he plans to finish the bachelors degree he's put on hold, and find a job in law enforcement.

Sgt. Jill Johnson from Wisconsin Falls is serving a different role in the nearly year long mission. Johnson is part of the 43-member Red Bull band. She'll perform at ceremonies with her French horn. She'll also play keyboard and sing in a country band.

"Hopefully we'll be playing a lot. We're looking forward to being able to go and play a variety of gigs."

Graphic: Red Bulls in Iraq
National Guard officials say this mission for the 34th Infantry Division is notable because of its scope. The division will command all Coalition military operations in eight Iraqi provinces.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

Make no mistake though, Johnson has spent months training for deployment to a combat zone.

"It's good to know that just in case the situation comes up, then we have to act not as a band member...we're prepared."

This is Johnson's first deployment to Iraq.

But this is familiar territory for veteran guard member Sgt. 1st Class Kent Lande from Forest Lake. He was deployed to Kosovo for a year in 1999. He spent 22 months in Iraq starting in 2005. Now after only 18 months at home, he's headed back for nearly a year.

Lande knows from experience he'll spend plenty of time easing his wife's worries.

"When she hears things going on, hears about bombs exploding and soldiers getting killed, I just talk about it a little bit and say 'It wasn't in our area, don't worry, we're still safe,' I just let her know what's going on."

Valerie Lande says she'll do her best not to worry.

"I have my own business which helps. I'm working a lot and I have great girlfriends and great kids and a dog who never leaves my side. I don't sit around and dwell and worry. You just do what you got to do."

After her husband's recent 22 month Iraq deployment, 12 months away seems like a drop in the bucket, Valerie Lande says.

The 1,037 members of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division will first head to Washington state for training in February. They go to Iraq in April, and expect to return in February of 2010.