Guard unit returns from Kosovoby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
Some 400 Minnesota National Guard soldiers returned Thursday from Kosovo. The unit was deployed for 12 months to support NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkan nation. Family and friends were outside the armory in West St. Paul to greet about 70 of the returning soldiers.
West St. Paul, Minn. — After an afternoon of heavy storms, the clouds parted just long enough for the festivities. Hundreds of people waited in the parking lot, looking for signs of the two buses carrying their loved ones home.
Mack Liebl, 13, from Richmond, was holding a sign he'd made especially for the occasion.
"It says 'Welcome Home, Jeff.' Jeff's my cousin and I haven't seen him for a while," Liebl said. "He's been in Kosovo and I'm really excited to see him again."
Liebl said he was looking forward to giving his cousin a big hug.
Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry were in Kosovo as part of Task Force Bayonet, to support NATO's longstanding peacekeeping mission there. They also provided security during Kosovo's recent declaration of independence.
That move last February prompted angry demonstrations in the region.
Fourteen other members of Jeff Liebl's family were also there. Jeff's wife, Marcie, said this reunion has been a long time coming. She's only seen her husband for a couple of months this year, and he missed their anniversary in June.
She said being apart has been really tough, but the Internet helped a lot. They used e-mail and programs like Skype to keep in touch as much as possible.
"Pretty much, at least every day, every other day, unless he was in a different location. But if he was in the same spot, we could," Marcie Liebl said. "I felt like I was more connected and closer to him."
Then the buses came around the corner. After getting off, the soldiers quickly lined up in formation across from their families. Then the hugging began.
Marcie Liebl greeted her husband and stepped aside to let the rest of his family take over.
Her husband, Jeff, said he's happy to be home. But he couldn't help thinking about getting back to work at his construction business.
"Try to get things rolling here, and take a few days off, obviously, and then get things together," Jeff Liebl said. "I need to start looking. I have a good lumber yard that I work through, so they will help me out."
He wasn't the only one looking forward to relaxing before getting back to work. Anoka resident Graham Besonen was also ready to chill.
"It's great, great to be home, great to see the family and friends and America in general. I'm going out to dinner and then I'm going to go sit on my deck. And that's all I'm looking forward to," said Besonen. "And I'm getting out of this uniform for a while. I've been wearing it for a year straight."
Besonen is used to coming and going. This deployment is his last before he retires. He served in the Marines during Desert Storm before joining the Guard. He says this time was worse, because he was away from his baby son.
"He's grown up a lot since I've been gone, and I can't wait to see him," Besonen said. "A lot changes, especially with a young son. He's talking in sentences right now and when I left he could barely talk. Very different."
Besonen said he kept in touch with his wife and son using a Webcam. But it can't compare to the real thing.
Other welcoming ceremonies were held Thursday in Mankato, Austin, Albert Lea and Rochester.
- Morning Edition, 07/11/2008, 6:50 a.m.