Two generations, but shared uncertainty of deployment

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Wes Moechnig
Wes Moechnig looks over the cows during feeding time on April 21, 2011. Moechnig, 22, is a dairy farmer who lives with his parents on their dairy farm near Lake City. He is also an infantryman for the Minnesota National Guard and will be among the approximately 2,400 Red Bull soldiers who are preparing for a year-long deployment to Kuwait this summer. This will be Moechnig's first deployment.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

Wabasha County, Minn. -- On a crisp spring evening, Wes Moechnig heads into the milking parlor of his family's dairy farm, attaches vacuum pumps to a dozen Brown Swiss cows and waits.

"I milk twice a day," Moechnig said. "I take care of the barns. And of course, we're probably going to be getting out into the fields pretty soon."

But this routine will end soon for Moechnig. The 22-year-old Army specialist with a boyish face and a timid smile will join roughly 2,400 troops from the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division. In the next few weeks, the soldiers from 530 Minnesota communities and 15 other states will train at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, before deploying to Kuwait in the summer.

Near Albert Lea, another solider prepares for a similar deployment. Ole Olson, 56, is one of 55 soldiers in the 136th Infantry heading to Afghanistan for a year to train Afghan Security Forces. He's old enough to be Moechnig's dad.

For the next year, the two men of different generations and considerably different life experiences will put their lives on hold to serve the Army.

Ole and Little Boy
Ole Olson, 56, checks on the family pet, a 1,700-hundred pound, pure-bred Texas Longhorn, called Little Boy.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Like Moechnig, roughly 60 percent of the troops deploying to Kuwait will be heading overseas for the first time.

"It's a young man's game," said Col. Eric Kerska, the 1st Brigade's commander. "Us older fellas need to stay in shape."

Kerska, 46, will lead the troops during the Kuwait deployment. Preparing for deployments never gets easier, he said.

"The only thing easier about it is you have an idea of what to expect," said Kerska, a Rochester firefighter.

Lacking a veteran soldier's insight, Moechnig compares what he's heard about the Middle East with the only place he's ever known -- the 585 acres of southeastern Minnesota where his family has owned a dairy farm for six generations. As a child, he played war games in the woods on the sprawling piece of land, hid green plastic Army men toys in his mom's planters and tended to his animals.

"It's going to be so boring to look at things over there 'cause you're just in a desert," he said, speculating about the Kuwaiti terrain. "It's all flat and sand and stuff. Here, you've got trees and woods and hills. It's going to be a lot different."

Talking about his first deployment
Wes Moechnig talks about what it might be like on his first deployment during the summer on April 21, 2011.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

Moechnig joined the Minnesota National Guard while in high school, lured by the $20,000 bonus a recruiter offered him. His parents supported that decision.

Though Moechnig knows his role now is to be a soldier, he can only imagine his Kuwait duty. The last few weeks on the farm have been filled with excitement and doubt.

"You're not just going to walk away from a deployment for a year and not be fazed or changed at all," he said. "It's going to change me. I don't know how yet, but I'm sure it will."

While Moechnig questions the year ahead of him, Olson's decades of military experience help shape his expectations of the mission ahead.

"You always think about what your family's doing when you're gone," said Olson on his crop farm just north of Albert Lea. "You kind of put yourself in that place and you think about what's at home."

Olson's first deployment to a U.S. Army base in Germany was in 1974 -- 14 years before Moechnig was born. The regional salesman for a roofing shingles company also served in Iraq with the Red Bulls from 2005 to 2007.

Multiple deployments have taught him the best way to prepare is to tie up loose ends at home. That includes little things like finding someone to plow the driveway while he's away and transferring business clients to new salespeople.

"I'm up at 4:30 in the morning," he said. "I wake up and my head is starting to spin: 'Okay, I've got to get this done, this done, this done, this done.' "

Ole Olson family
Ole Olson, 56, his wife, Aimee, and two youngest sons, Issac, 17, and Ian, 11, outside their farmstead near Albert Lea. Olson a first sergeant with the Minnesota National Guard. He's one of 55 soldiers with the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry preparing to deploy to Afghanistan for a year to train Afghan Security Forces.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Perhaps the biggest advantage for Olson is knowing what others expect of him. As a first sergeant in the Guard, he knows he has to help prepare troops, on the field and in the classroom. It's a challenging assignment.

"We're going to have to learn a little bit of the dialect, some of the language that's being used [in Afghanistan]," he said. "And I'm not the youngest, so it makes it a little hard for me ... to learn a new language."

At home, Olson knows his wife and children expect the truth from him, especially when it comes to his safety.

He learned that lesson the hard way. In an envelope in his home office, he keeps a small piece of shrapnel, a reminder of an improvised explosive device that hit his Humvee during his last deployment in Iraq. When it happened, a friend convinced him to tell his wife.

"I said, 'I'm not going to tell her because she's just going to worry. I don't want people to worry about things like that because stuff happens,' " he said. "He convinced me that 'No, you need to because if you don't and she finds out some place else, that's not going to be the right thing to do.' "

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