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National Guard prepares for largest deployment since WWII
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty shakes hands with members of the Minnesota National Guard who will be deployed to the Middle East later this year. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
About 2,600 Minnesota National Guard members are preparing to be deployed to the Middle East. The 34th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team will train for six months in the South, and will then be deployed overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It's the largest overseas deployment of Minnesota National Guard soldiers since World War II.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota National Guard officials say they don't know where the 1st Brigade Combat Team will be deployed, but say it's likely that soldiers will end up somewhere in the Middle East.

Over the next several weeks, Guard members will start leaving Minnesota for six months of training in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and Fort Polk, Louisiana.

First Lt. Ryan Gore of Albert Lea says he is excited to have the opportunity to serve overseas.

"We'll be fine. I know for a fact this is one of the best units that I've ever seen, so we'll have excellent training at the hands of the 1st Army and the training support battalion at Camp Shelby," says Gore. "Whatever unit we fall into in country, they'll tell us whatever we need to know once we get there. It will work out very well. I'm positive of that."

Another soldier who's going to be deployed echoes Gore's sentiments. Staff Sgt. Todd Schoenike of Shakopee says he supports the current war efforts and isn't concerned about the potential dangers.

"You look at it like a regular job that we have back here. It's going to have its good days and bad days. It's going to have its lumps, and we'll have to adjust to get the mission done," says Schoenike.

The 1st Brigade Combat Team is headquartered at the northeast Minneapolis Armory. It includes about 4,000 soldiers from Minnesota, New Jersey, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Utah.

Col. David Elicerio will be leading the efforts as the 1st Brigade Team commander. He says he and other National Guard members are preparing themselves and their family members for the deployment.

"As I leave home, it's the family that gets twice the job," says Elicerio. "They're the ones who have to shovel the sidewalk, mow the grass, rake the leaves and get the kids off to soccer, and all of those other things that we soldiers normally help with."

Adj. Gen. Larry Shellito, commander of the Minnesota National Guard, says he received the mobilization orders earlier this week. He says Minnesotans from 33 communities will be called up as a part of the effort.

It's the largest deployment of the Minnesota National Guard in 50 years. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 8,000 Minnesota Guard members have served on active duty. Shellito says morale is good among the nearly 13,000 Guard members in the state.

"Conventional wisdom would say that it would be down, and they'd be a little cautious. We have not yet experienced it," Shellito says. "Could you go out and find a couple of people who would be? Yes. But the vast majority that we have talked to -- and I asked that same question directly to my leaders -- and they are more than surprised at the positive attitude of our young men and women."

Gov. Pawlenty praised the sacrifices that Guard members and their families are making for the war effort. At one point during the news conference, he had tears in his eyes when talking about their service.

At the same time, Pawlenty and many other governors have expressed concern that a large number of Guard units are being deployed to the Middle East. They worry that extended leave and service could harm the state's efforts at home. Pawlenty said he's confident there are enough Guard members in Minnesota to help with any potential disaster.

"Beyond that there are other concerns and issues. And that is how often and how frequently we call upon these tremendous individuals to serve or be deployed," says Pawlenty. "We don't want to call upon them so frequently or so often that we burn them out."

Pawlenty says he's proud that the Minnesota Army National Guard continues to lead the nation in recruiting. He is also urging the public to support the programs that assist Minnesota National Guard families.