A closer look at the Red Bulls as they prepare to deploy

Spc. Bryan Meek
Spc. Bryan Meek, 25, of Eyota, Minn. locks the crate he's packed with personal items to take on his deployment to Kuwait this summer. Meek is among the 39 percent of deploying soldiers who leave behind at least one dependent child or spouse.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Hundreds of camouflage uniforms and rucksacks, green duffel bags and plastic crates cover the basketball court inside the Rochester Armory, a sure sign that the Red Bull soldiers are on the move.

From a distance, it's hard to tell the piles apart. But a closer look opens a window into the lives of soldiers.

"Extra boots — you can never have enough boots," said Bryan Meek, of Eyota.

"I got a Gameboy, a couple of knives, a meditation book," added Ben Schafer, of Rochester.

The two specialists, both 25, are among 2,400 soldiers preparing to head to Kuwait this summer with the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.

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Graphic: Who are the Red Bulls?

Most of the brigade's soldiers are now at Camp Ripley for the first phase of pre-deployment training. They've gone through the tedious task of counting and packing what they'll need and want while they're away from home — webcams, books, extra socks.

Preparing to go in Rochester
Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry B Company from Rochester prepare their bags during a weekend container operation at the Rochester Armory. The soldiers are part of the 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry division preparing to head overseas this summer with the Minnesota National Guard. It's difficult to predict the experiences these soldiers will encounter over the next year. But much of military life is about planning and preparation.
MPR Photo/ Elizabeth Baier

They'll re-pack these bags a number of times while at Camp Ripley, and later at Fort McCoy, Wis., to make sure they've got everything they need.

Meek and Schafer are among the 39 percent of deploying soldiers who leave behind at least one dependent child or spouse. In their crates are pictures and mementos that remind them of their families.

"There's piles of people that just had babies that are under a year old that are leaving," said Meek, whose son Thomas was born in March. "I think it'll make it easier for us, at least we can all share different things to talk about."

The deploying Red Bull soldiers represent 530 communities throughout Minnesota and 15 other states. Men make up 94 percent of the brigade. All of the deploying Minnesota soldiers have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. But 91 soldiers have earned an associate's degree and 283 have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, according to Guard statistics.

Gas Mask fitting
Private First Class Evandro Uscanga, right, has a gas mask fitting at the National Guard armory in East St. Paul, Minn. Saturday, April 9, 2011. The fitting was part of container operations for the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor, where unit members were packing and preparing for deployment.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

At Fort McCoy, the soldiers will also go through final medical and administrative screenings to ensure they're physically fit and have all of their paperwork.

For many soldiers, the reality of overseas duty sets when they pack their bags and work through extensive pre-deployment checklists, said 1st Lt. Dustin Rockow, 24.

"I don't know if they enjoy it, but it's good for them because it gives them the reassurance that 'I do have everything I need and at least this piece that I can control'," Rockow said. " 'I got a chance to bring everything that I want from home in my tote.' "

In many ways, this deployment will be much like the 2005 Red Bull mission to Iraq in that it involves convoy missions. But this time around, soldiers will be based in Kuwait and will travel into Iraq to secure other soldiers in the final drawdown of U.S. forces from that country.

About 60 percent of the soldiers in the brigade will put their lives on hold for the first time to serve in the Army. The other 40 percent of soldiers have served with the Red Bull brigade before, dramatically changing the brigade's leadership.

Container Operations
Staff Sergeant Joshua Riviere, with the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor, sorts through clothing as he and other members of his unit pack for deployment at the National Guard armory in East St. Paul, Minn. Saturday, April 9, 2011. The 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor is one of 29 units from Minnesota deploying this year as part of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We have really young sergeants," said Col. Eric Kerska, the 1st Brigade's commander. "It's amazing the level of responsibility to have, yet they're still fuzzy-faced kids."

Kerska, 46, believes age is the single biggest difference between this and previous Red Bull deployments. Although his soldiers are young, they have more experience than previous generations, he said.

Though they're well-trained for the mission, Kerska said some of the brigade's young new sergeants will now be charged with managing and caring for the soldiers under their command.

"It's a double-edged sword. We've got people with phenomenal operational experience on the missions. They perform at a level the older generation hadn't, couldn't do," Kerska said. "Conversely, the every day day-in, day-out, taking care of people, counseling, those skills we're weaker at."

Kerska has spent a lot of time thinking about the year ahead. He sees a mission that's less violent and potentially less dangerous than the 2005 deployment. As a result, he realizes complacency could be a problem. He admits some of his soldiers are disappointed they're not going to Afghanistan, where the action is.

But for the most part, Kerska said it's an honorable mission. And a year from now, he'll measure its success with another number — the health and morale of the soldiers he brings home.