Pawlenty welcomes Guard members back homeby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
The return home from Iraq for members of the Minnesota Army National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team is winding down. Military officials say the final flight from Kuwait is scheduled to bring the last of the 2,600 Minnesota members of the brigade to west central Wisconsin Wednesday. That flight will mark the end of an historic deployment for the Minnesota National Guard.
A planeload of Guardsmen and women got a homecoming welcome back Tuesday morning from the Secretary of the Army and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Tomah, Wis. — The second to the last flight into Volk Field seemed to hold the same anticipation as the first one that arrived a week earlier. A chartered DC-10 taxied off the runway. A line of military brass gathered as the official welcoming party.
And like the numerous flights before it, when the door of the plane opened a stream of smiling soldiers emerged.
At the base of the stairway, in addition to the contingent of Guard officials were Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the U.S. Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren.
Pawlenty and Geren spoke individually with several soldiers. Casey Harley, from Superior, Wisconsin, is part of a Minnesota Guard unit headquartered at Camp Ripley. Harley says Pawlenty thanked him for his service.
While impressed with meeting the governor, Harley was focused on the upcoming reunion with his family. He said he's excited, and anxious about getting back to normal life.
"Nervous to get home, and I guess start over again," said Harley. "I've got a three-year-old daughter, and I want to make sure that I can go from being a soldier to being a good father again, and being a good husband to my wife and what not."
Fellow soldier Tim Hughes of Burnsville talked about how humid the Wisconsin air is compared with Iraq. He had just wrapped up a cell phone conversation with a friend about McDonald's.
"I wasn't sure if they still had the dollar menu or not," said Hughes. "I had to make sure that they still had the dollar menu and the double cheeseburger and all that kind of stuff."
Like other soldiers, Hughes says having the governor on hand was an honor.
"It's nice. Yeah it is. Without it we would feel forgotten, and it's really nice and comforting too," said Hughes.
Neither Gov. Pawlenty nor Army Secretary Pete Geren gave a speech, but the returning soldiers did hear from Guard Maj. Gen. Rick Erlandson.
Referring to the fierce debate over the war, Erlandson told the troops their efforts in Iraq helped give Iraqis a chance for a better life.
As for their homecoming, he urged the men and women to take their time readjusting to civilian life. He told them they've changed, and so have their friends and families.
"I'm going to ask you, as you go home, to go slow. Take it one step at a time. One hour at a time. A week at a time. A month at a time. But go slow," said Erlandson.
"And if you do that, and you take advantage of the great support staff that we've assembled through the reintegration process -- you as a family will never be the same again, but you will reach a 'new normal.' And I can tell you that that 'new normal' for the majority of us will be good," Erlandson added.
Erlandson also urged the soldiers not to forget their fallen comrades. Twenty-one members of the brigade died during the deployment, and 14 of them were combat related. Half of those killed in combat were Minnesotans.
The commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, Col. David Elicerio, arrived in Wisconsin over the weekend. Elicerio was also on hand to greet the returning troops.
"It's a big relief every time one of these kids gets off the plane. These soldiers have been through a lot. And I am not going to have that big heavy sigh of relief until that last plane touches down here," said Elicerio. "For the last couple of weeks we've been seeing the end of the tunnel. The light is on. I think we're going to make it."
That last plane full of troops, Guard officials say, should be on the ground in Wisconsin within 24 hours.
However, about a dozen members of the brigade remain in Kuwait, wrapping up the deployment. They're expected back at the end of July when all the brigade's equipment is accounted for.
But Gov. Pawlenty says all of the homecomings don't mean Minnesota Guard troops are done being away from home.
"We spent all day Sunday, all day yesterday at deployments all around Minnesota, for 400 more National Guard members who are going to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission. We've got an aviation group that's being deployed," Pawlenty said. "And so this process continues. And while we celebrate and thank the soldiers who are returning, we also have to realize we've got more who are going to other parts of the world, and we can't forget them either."
The aviation group the governor referred to is a roughly 300-member attack helicopter unit that is currently finishing training in Oklahoma, and is bound for Iraq in August.
- All Things Considered, 07/17/2007, 5:20 p.m.