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Minnesota National Guard
Saluting the Minnesota National Guard

Posted by: Steve Hunegs Updated: July 29, 2011 - 10:01 AM

The sacrifice of the Minnesota National Guard (“MNNG”) members and their families in this era of multiple overseas deployments is tremendous  The support for MNNG soldiers, airmen, and their families from business, media and philanthropic communities has also been tremendous  The Chaplaincy Corps of the MNNG is also continuing its outreach to the faith communities to bring those resources to bear in support of the MNNG

Recently, Lt. Col. John Morris, the Minnesota National Guard State Chaplain, invited Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to Fort McCoy, WI, to see the training of Minnesota soldiers in connection with their deployment to Kuwait and Iraq

Described below is part of what we saw and learned

From 1,500 feet, eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin is a series of bucolic farms and tranquil small towns  The heavy rains of the past two months coupled with the warm and sunny days of July has left the countryside green with life and crops  The dairy and corn heartland of the nation shimmers with agricultural productivity

Half a world away a different terrain and climate awaits the 1st Combat Brigade Team (“1BCT”) of the 34th Infantry Division – “The Red Bulls” of the Minnesota National Guard  The 2,400 strong brigade is completing its state-side training at Fort McCoy this month  Not long from now, this brigade of Minnesota men and women (Fargo and Superior, also) will arrive in the Kuwait desert of 120 degrees with an assignment, among other things, to protect convoys removing American soldiers and material from Iraq

The idyll of soft, rolling Minnesota and Wisconsin countryside and two lane county highways will be replaced on a frequent journey through marshes, arid lands and north to the cacophonous and sprawling Baghdad – (yet needed for roadside bombs and ambushes)

This is also a metaphor for the mission “terrain” in which the MNNG has found itself since September 11, 2001

The metrics are sobering and suggestive  As I learned from Maj. Gen. Richard C Nash, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, at his installation ceremony, the Minnesota National Guard is the fifth largest per capita with 14,000 soldiers and air force personnel  Since 9/11, the Minnesota National Guard has deployed 22,000 service personnel (with many deployed multiple times) to Iraq and Afghanistan 

This August, 2011, deployment of the 1st Brigade Combat Team will be one of the largest overseas deployments of the MNNG since World War II  Minnesota’s contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mirrors the evolution of the National Guard from strategic mission to operational components of the United States armed forces  Despite the stress of the overseas deployment commitment, the MNNG also maintains its humanitarian mission of disaster relief in the Upper Midwest

At this critical juncture for the MNNG (an entity whose ancestry includes the first of Minnesota’s heroics and sacrifice at the Battle of Gettysburg – it knows something about critical junctures), Lt. Col. Morris is continuing his efforts to integrate the faith communities into the network of support for the Minnesota National Guard, its deployed personnel and the families (and employers) left behind

Chaplain Morris is one of the co-creators along with Lt Gen (brevet) Larry W Shellito of the nationally recognized, award-winning Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program  He is a plain-spoken and direct son of the military with a wry sense of humor with boundless determination for his chaplains to achieve excellence in pursuit of their vital mission  He has also earned his paratrooper’s wings although he is not one to “parachute” into a situation as he seemingly knows everyone and everything about the Minnesota National Guard and its disparate missions

Flying by Black Hawk helicopter to Fort McCoy were a number of leaders from the Minnesota faith community: Gail Anderson, Minnesota Council of Churches; Rev Carl Nelson, Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals; Rev Grant Abbott, St Paul Area Council of Churches; Father Kevin McDonough, Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis; Rev Ralph Gustafson, Bethel University; Rev Alan Bolte, United Methodist – Northstar Division; and Abdisalam Adam, Islamic Civic Society of America 

In short, it was Christians, Muslims and Jews visiting Fort McCoy to see the preparations of Minnesota Christians, Muslims and Jews for deployment half a world away

In our journey, we learned fascinating facts and met the Minnesota soldiers who will be conducting this mission

Col Eric D Kerska explained the “dynamic” mission contemplated for the 1BCT in conditions in Iraq which range from 130 degrees in the summer to 30-40 degrees in the winter  Col Kerska noted the faith community is indispensible for monitoring the morale and providing assistance to the families of the deployed

The convoy protection duty associated with the draw down will challenge the brigade as security concerns heighten According to The New York Times, Iran is strengthening its proxies in Iraq in order to take credit for the United States withdrawal through increased attacks on American troops which includes small arms attacks and the planting and demolition of IEDs

Maj Paul D Rickert (participating in his fourth deployment) provided additional background about the deployment of the 1BCT  Participating in “Operation New Dawn” is the second largest deployment for a Minnesota National Guard unit since the Second World War  The 1BCT will be stationed in Kuwait for its convoy security mission both bringing supplies to military personnel remaining in Iraq and assisting in the withdrawal of personnel and material being removed from collapsed bases  Nine hundred Oklahoma National Guard and four hundred Mississippi National Guard personnel will join the 1BCT 

The 1BCT is a mixture of soldiers facing their initial deployment and veterans being deployed again  Sixty percent are being deployed for the first time; twenty-three percent for the second time; and twelve percent for the third time

Accompanying the 1BCT are 6 chaplains and 6 assistants from Minnesota Army National Guard  Their mission is to “accomplish and support the specified religious, spiritual and ethical needs of soldiers in accordance with command responsibilities”  Pastoral and spiritual counseling is provided to the 1BCT which reflects a cross section of Minnesotans  Fifty-eight communities are providing more than ten soldiers  Forty-nine percent of the soldiers provided a Protestant religious preference  Twenty-three percent provided a Catholic religious preference  Thirty percent provided no religious preference  There are Jewish and Muslim personnel meaning all three monotheistic faiths are represented  Maj Rickert noted the chaplaincy corps is not as diverse in Minnesota as it has a shortage of priests, imams and rabbis

The Chaplains, in the eyes of Maj Rickert, give life to the Constitution as well as standing astride the tensions embroiled in the Constitution  The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is vindicated with priests saying mass, pastors leading services, rabbis conducting seders and imams ministering to soldiers  The Constitution, however, protects soldiers who profess no faith and/or the imposition of a faith not their own upon them during their service to their country  At bottom, the chaplains are trained and motivated to help all military personnel of all religions or no religion

We were also introduced to Chaplains Winn, Chavez and Cedergren and their chaplain assistants Davis, Martinez and Staff Sgt Novacek  Chaplain Martinez, from Brainerd, noted the history of the 194th Tank Battalion which was stationed in the Philippines at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor  Many died and some survived the Bataan Death March  The 194th’s motto is: “Remember Bataan, never forget”

One of the most inspiring moments was meeting the 1st Battalion, 125 Field Artillery from New Ulm in their barracks  The soldiers were engaged in tactics review in preparation of convoy protection duty  The group met Lt, non-commissioned officer and twenty-something women and men who will be “in-country” in Kuwait and Iraq starting in the fall  They live in a World War II era barracks with little privacy and less air conditioning in the midst of a hot Midwestern summer  (Fort McCoy covers 60,000 acres with thousands of soldiers preparing for deployment or returning from deployment)  Seeing African American soldiers and white soldiers living together, executing their mission together, no doubt saving each other once deployed is a reflection of the farsighted decision of President Truman in 1947, six years before the decision of Brown v Board, to desegregate the armed forces, making the military one of the most diverse American institutions

We learned about the resources available to MNNG personnel and their families  One of the most important initiatives is the Minnesota National Guard’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program  According to the Minnesota National Guard, the program provides assistance to combat veterans and their families as well as providing support to the families while the service personnel are deployed  Support areas include financial, legal and psychological services and training to help reintegrate the service member upon returning to Minnesota  In 2008, Congress mandated Minnesota’s Yellow Ribbon Program as the national standard for all returning National Guard and Reserve soldiers and family members

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