August 8, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Until this year, much of the news from the Minnesota National Guard was about part-time troops being called up for full-time duty. At ceremonies throughout Minnesota politicians wished citizen soldiers well as they parted with their families and friends, many of them headed for combat zones.
In recent months some of the same armories and airports where tearful good-byes were said in 2002, 2003 and 2004, have been places of jubilant homecomings.
But soon the armories will once again be sending off soldiers. Right now, 2700 Minnesota National Guard Troops are on alert, awaiting orders.
Minnesota National Guard commander Major General Larry Shellito says those orders will come in what he'll describe only as the "near term." He says the troops will deploy next year.
"'05 is kind of a lot of people coming back home but shortly here we'll be having a lot of ceremonies deploying a lot more soldiers," Shellito says, "In fact it will be our largest deployment yet."
General Shellito says the soldiers will be all be supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some will be in places such as Kuwait, but Shellito says most will end up in Iraq. He says it will be the first combat-zone experience for almost all of the troops.
"The vast majority will have either been in Bosnia or Kosovo if they're been anywhere," Shellito says, "Keep in mind, we've recruiting a significant number of new soldiers also so for a good number of them also it will be first-timers."
The troops on alert now have known about the upcoming deployment for weeks and likely will not be in Iraq for months. That's a lot more time to make arrangements for leaving home than was given the first wave of Minnesota Guard troops sent to Iraq.
"I got called up at 4:00 on, I think it was a Tuesday evening, and had to report the next morning," says Dan Henry who's a 1st Sgt. with the Minnesota Army National Guard. "That's how much notice we got."
In his civilian life Henry is in charge of maintaining the facilities at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud. He remembers well the afternoon more than 2 1/2 years ago when he learned he would become a full-time soldier in the war on terrorism starting immediately. Less than a week after getting the call up order, Henry and nearly 140 other members of 142nd engineering battalion were on their way to Colorado and then off to Iraq.
"I look back on it now and it doesn't seem possible but we made it happen," Says Henry. "And you know there was a lot of families that were in the same situation"
And addition to getting himself ready, Henry had to help make arrangements for two of his daughters who were also deployed with him.
Since the 142nd was sent to Iraq, many more Minnesota troops have followed. In all, nearly 2000 part time Minnesota soldiers, which is almost 10 percent of the state's Army National Guard force.
Three Minnesota Guard members have been killed in Iraq.
Henry will soon retire from the Guard, making another deployment unlikely for him. He says for other guard soldiers, the uncertainty about deployments is difficult but something he says the military is trying to address.
"I met with Senator Coleman and General Shellito from the State of Minnesota shortly after I go back," Henry says. "And that's one thing that the Guard is doing is they're asking these troops that are coming back what concerns they have and that's what I brought up is that I think with the National Guard we need more parameters of exactly what we can expect -- how often we might be deployed, for what the length of the deployments are those type of questions and they're getting us some answers. I think that it's finally starting to work through and they are trying to address some of those issues."
Back at headquarters General Shellito says it's in the Guard's best interest to get straight forward deployment information to troops as early as possible.
"What's happening is they are trying to answer the most common complaint that initially occurred and that was predictability," Shellito says. "We're working very, very hard to predict and as soon as we know something both on a national and a state level, we get that information out as quickly as possible. We just have to be careful that, you know, it's not rumor but that it is based on solid, best known facts at that time."
Guard call-up policy is complicated and the Department of Defense can change the rules at will. Generally troops are required to complete up to 24 months of deployment for every five years of service. If they're needed beyond that, they're asked to volunteer for missions. If not enough soldiers with the required skills step forward, they can be ordered to service.
Shellito says far the voluntary mechanism has been working well and he doesn't foresee having to increase mandatory deployments.
"I don't anticipate that at all. In fact as we've met, and I talked to the commanders, and really without exception they are impressed with the responses they have received from the soldiers stepping forward to go," Shellito says.
Soon Tom Murray, who works for the University of Minnesota's Office of Information Technology, says he'll be shipping out to Iraq for what he expects will be an 18-month deployment.
He's been in the Guard for 9 years and has volunteered for numerous missions. Preparing to leave now, he says, is much easier than it used to be.
"I think it's changed a lot," Murray says. "They have given us for instance maybe a three or four-year timeline that you know these opportunities are coming up. They don't necessarily say it's going to be from this time to this time but they say okay well we're in the grab bag and if they pick our number then we're it."
Murray also says there is a lot more support now for the families of soldiers sent away, everything from counseling to help with basics such as home repair.
For decades Minnesota National Guard troops had no expectation of being sent into war zones. Officials say they now tell recruits to count on deployments. And, despite that, Minnesota continues to lead the in nation in Guard recruiting.