Minnesota Red Bulls pack their bags for Iraq

Getting ready to deploy
Sgt. Dave Denton is preparing for deployment to Iraq along with 1,000 other Minnesota National Guard soldiers. In 2004, Denton was deployed to Iraq for two years.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

In his 20 years in the National Guard, Sgt. David Denton has become an expert at packing.

Denton's expertise is obvious when the 39-year- old rattles off the list of items he's packed into an Army duffel bag, called an A bag.

"My sleeping bag, I've got two uniforms in there," Denton listed off items. "I've got seven to 10 days worth of undergarments. My shaving kit. My physical training gear."

In a few days Denton, and more than 1,000 other Minnesota National Guard troops, will ship out to Ft. Lewis, Wash., for training. By April the soldiers will be in Iraq. They aren't expected to return to Minnesota until at least February of 2010.

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It's a trip Sgt. Denton has made before.

Sgt. Denton's rucksack
Sgt. Dave Denton's rucksack is packed in preparation for his deployment to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"I got deployed in 2004," Denton said. "I was gone for two years. I've been back for about two years, and now I'm going back (to Iraq)."

The living room of Denton's Stillwater home is a strange hybrid these days. Part play room, with toys belonging to his two young boys, part equipment staging area for a year long military deployment.

Denton's wife, a teacher who's at work, understands his duty like only military spouses can. He's not sure that makes his departure any easier on her.

His sons, who are 5 and 8, also know what their dad is about to do. But that doesn't mean they're happy about it.

Denton says he's done his best to explain what's going to happen.

"It's one of those things. Daddy's gong to war, but he's going to help the people there so he doesn't have to go back hopefully," Denton said.

Of the 1,037 soldiers from the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division who are about to be deployed, more than a third have been to Iraq before.

Sgt. Knowles and some of her books
On her first deployment to Iraq, Sgt. Kathaleen Knowles spent her spare time reading. She sent the books home for storage. She expects to plow through many more books during her upcoming year long deployment to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Sgt. Kathaleen Knowles is one of them.

Souvenirs from her time away line the walls of the Blaine apartment Knowles shares with her mom. The momentos are actually the hundreds of books she's read over her eight years in the military.

Knowles expects to add more books to her collection as she spends the next year away from home.

As an Army court reporter she'll be assigned to work in court martial proceedings.

Knowles has already spent two years in Iraq with the National Guard. She just returned in July of 2008 and was not obligated for a return so soon, but volunteered for this deployment.

"My friends, they all think I'm kind of crazy," Knowles said. "But it's pretty much what I've chosen to do. I don't mind it."

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

In the past, the Guard was responsible for security of convoys and bases and they built roads and schools.

This time Minnesota troops will be in command of 16,000 multinational troops working to secure Iraq. It's a part of a transition as the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, and turns over the job of securing the country to Iraqis.

"There's just a lot of things that aren't set right now," Knowles said. "Nobody really knows the full scope on what's going to happen when we get out there, or what we're going to be stepping into."

Minnesota National Guard commanders have reassured soldiers and their families that violence is down in Iraq, and attacks are infrequent in the southern third of the country where the troops will be stationed.

Currently there are about 1,100 Minnesota National Guard soldiers in Iraq. Another 50 are serving in Afghanistan.