Minnesota guardsman reflects on mission in Iraq
July 4th, 2006 marks the third Independence Day in a row in which thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed on active-duty in Iraq. Among the more than 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground today are 2,600 Minnesotans who make up the Minnesota Army National Guard's largest overseas deployment since World War II. The Minnesota troops shipped out to the Persian Gulf in March and are expected to be in Iraq through the winter of 2007. Minnesota Public Radio News caught up with one member of the guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team who's just returned to Iraq after a short leave to his southern Minnesota home.
St. Paul, Minn. — Back from Iraq for a two week break to celebrate his 21st birthday, Cody Messner kept himself busy. On a sunny afternoon in June a visit to his grandparent's house with his mom and almost three-year old nephew Colton was on the schedule. They drive the new car Cody just bought a couple of days ago.
Messner did things he can not do in Iraq. He spent time with his girlfriend and his buddies and he went to a Twin's game. He went fishing.
"I have just had a blast since I have been home," says Messner, smiling. "It's been a lot of fun."
Messner's mom, Kimberly, was surprised her son got to come home for a break so soon after deploying.
"Shortly after he got over there he started saying, 'Mom, I'll be home in the middle of June,' explain Kimmberly, "I kept telling Cody, you know you haven't been over there that long."
Cody's mom found out her son was in the U.S. when a call came in late at work one night a couple of weeks ago. Cody was at the airport in Dallas and on the way to Minneapolis.
"It is really good to have him back home," she says. "He's grown up so much, it's neat. It's going to be hard to have to say goodbye to him again, but it's nice having him here."
I first met Cody Messner last fall over the Thanksgiving holiday at Camp Shelby, a huge military training ground in southern Mississippi.
The 20-year-old, who had joined the guard two years ago, was in the middle of six months of training prior his deployment to Iraq.
At the time Messner sat in the gunner's ring atop a Humvee. He said then he hoped the training would leave him prepared to act by instinct once he arrived in Iraq.
"It helps a lot to work with live rounds that way you get the feel of everything," Messner said in November of 2005.
A few months later, in March, preparing to leave Mississippi for the Persian gulf, Messner said he felt ready.
Cody has now had three months of life in a combat zone and he has ridden the gunner's ring position for real in Iraq.
"I've been doing this sanitation detail where we run security trucks so they can take out the garbage and waste water, and we leave the base for a little while. And they go and dump the waste water outside of the gate and then we come back and it doesn't take very long, but you do a couple of runs a day so it makes the day go by fast," says Messner.
Messner says he has not come across any homemade bombs on the sanitation convoys. Improvised explosive decives or IEDs have killed and injured thousands of troops and are a constant threat. Since Messner began his leave roadside bombs have killed two members of his brigade from Minnesota.
In early June an IED killed a brigade member from Nebraska.
Still Messner says he hasn't felt much danger.
"I feel safe," says Messner. "I like where we're at. I don't know if we're going to stay there. Things change and you can't plan for anything so you try to just take it one day at a time."
According to National Guard officials, Messer and most of the other members of the Minnesota Brigade, are stationed a little less than 200 miles south of Baghdad on a sprawling former Iraqi air base. The section the Minnesota guard troops occupy is called Camp Adder.
Messner says so far, living conditions in Iraq have been a lot nicer than they were at the training camp in Mississippi.
"It's a great improvement since we've been over there to what it was when we were in Mississippi," says Messner. "The food's a lot better too. They do have a lot of stuff for us over there and try to make it as comfortable for us as possible.
When he's not working, Messner says he and the other troops play video games, basketball and volleyball. They also lift weights and shop at the base's post exchange store. He says there's little discussion about the politics of the war.
"I don't know what's all going to happen and I'm just out there doing what I'm supposed to do and trying to make time go by faster," Messner says.
Whether working or relaxing, Messner says functioning in the harsh desert climate has been a challenge.
"You kind of expect the heat and everything but you can't really totally prepare for it because you've never had to deal with that kind of heat before," Messner says. "It's definitely hot."
Hot, as in 110 degrees in the morning and more than 130 degrees at the height of the afternoon sun.
"Once it gets above 115 you can't really tell a whole lot of difference in the heat, other than looking at a thermometer and seeing the temperature difference," Messner says. "You just try and stay out of the sun as much as possible."
Messner says it's so hot soldiers have to wear special gloves when they're working on equipment so they won't burn their hands on the metal. He says most of the buildings, including the sleeping quarters, are air conditioned.
Messner acknowledges it's hard to leave Minnesota to finish out his year-long tour of duty in Iraq.
Once again, he's far away from tiny Winthrop in southern Minnesota. His family and friends, are back again to their anxious count down to the end of his year-long deployment.
"I feel time has flew by since we've been there and when I get back hopefully it flies by just as fast or a lot faster," Messner says. "Hopefully it goes by pretty quick."
Messner says he's been told he'll switch jobs upon his return to Iraq. Rather than running security for the short sanitation convoys, he'll be concentrating on diesel mechanics. He's looking forward to that.
After he wraps up his deployment Messner plans to attend technical college in Mankato or Alexandria. He hopes to parlay that education along with the skills he'll learn in Iraq, into an engine repair job.