Fifty-five soldiers from a Rosemount-based battalion were sent off to war Friday.
Families, friends and supporters, including Minnesota's governor and a U.S. senator, gathered at the Rosemount National Guard Training and Community Center on a blustery afternoon to watch the official deployment of the Minnesota National Guard’s 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry.
“You are all heroes,” National Guard Commander in Chief and Gov. Mark Dayton told the assembled group, which leaves Sunday for Fort Dix, N.J., then early this summer for Afghanistan, where they will be part of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (or NTM-A, as the acronym-loving military knows it). “Your patriotism and your willingness to protect freedom throughout the world is extraordinary.”
The governor, who also praised the soldiers’ families as patriots, presented a Minnesota flag to Maj. Chip Rankin, the NTM-A officer in charge.
“We wish you godspeed,” Dayton said. “Fly it proudly, and bring it back with all your men safely.”
The battalion, which includes soldiers from all over the state – along with three from North Dakota, two from Iowa and one each from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – is scheduled to return to Minnesota sometime next spring. Their mission in Afghanistan is to help with counter-insurgency operations and infantry skills training.
Despite the seriousness of the occasion, there was some humor. In introducing the governor, Minnesota Adjutant General Richard Nash made a faux pas: “It’s a privilege to introduce the commander in chief of the Minnesota National Guard, Governor Pawlenty,” Nash said, causing good-natured laughter all over the auditorium – including chuckles from Dayton – before correcting himself.
“I hope I can recover from that,” a red-faced (but grinning) Nash said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar teased Nash about his gaffe: “I keep wanting to call you General Shellito,” Klobuchar said, referring to Nash’s predecessor, Adjutant General Larry Shellito, who retired last year. “But that would be giving you too much grief.”
Klobuchar also praised the battalion, drawing comparisons between its members and those of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, who held the line against 1,600 Confederate troops at Gettysburg. (This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's beginning.)
“Minnesota’s honor is indeed safe in your hands,” she said. “Thank you for your service and your dedication.”
Families began arriving for Friday’s ceremony shortly after noon, walking past a phalanx of flags held by members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard, an organization that sends representatives to all deployment and welcome-home ceremonies and offers other support to soldiers and their families.
Inside the auditorium, babies fussed and family members held seats for later arrivals. A grandfather held a toddler on his lap, showing him how to wave one of the small flags that lay on every spectator’s seat. Camouflage-clad members of a small military band made experimental toots into their instruments before launching into a medley of patriotic tunes.
Members of the battalion marched in 15 minutes before the ceremony was to begin, and stood at attention in front of their seats, unsmiling. Most of them – 39 of whom are leaving behind dependents – were undoubtedly thinking about the birthdays, second-grade concerts, lost teeth and family dinners that they’ll miss over the next year.
For Aimee Olson of Albert Lea, Friday’s ceremony was déjà vu: Her husband, First Sgt. Ole Olson, spent 22 months in Iraq from November 2005 to July 2007.
“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet,” she said from her seat in the second row of the spectator section. “I don’t know that it will until I take him to the hotel on Sunday.
“It’s a long time, but not as long as last time.”
Ole, whose civilian job as a roofing salesman with a territory that includes Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa, is often away from home when he’s not deployed. And Aimee thinks her age and her husband’s – Ole is 56, the second oldest soldier in the battalion – make the deployment somewhat easier.
“When you’re older, you’re more settled in your marriage and in life,” she said. “These younger soldiers and their families have it harder.”
The Olsons, who have been married for 18 years, have two sons, 11 and 17, at home. Aimee was accompanied to Friday’s event by her daughter, April Chance.
“It’s easier when you have family around,” Aimee said, though she admitted that it’s particularly hard on the boys when birthdays and holidays roll around, and their father is thousands of miles away.
Ole Olson is one of 21 soldiers in the Rosemount group being deployed for the second time. According to statistics from the National Guard, the average age of the group is 35, with the youngest 27 and the oldest 57.
Olson’s voice was one of the loudest when Command Sgt. Major Edward Mills called the roll. One after another, each of the 55 voices boomed, “Here, Sergeant Major!” as Mills read their names.
National Guard Chaplain John Morris ended the ceremony with a plea to keep the battalion safe.
“Go now in peace,” he said.