Minnesota Guard Families Prepare for Homecoming

If it weren't for the increase of U.S. troops in Baghdad, 2,600 soldiers in the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Minnesota National Guard would be coming home from Iraq about this time.

Instead, after a recent four-month extension, they're hoping for July. Theirs is the longest brigade level deployment in the history of the National Guard: 22 months.

That's why Minnesota has started preparing for what the military calls reintegration — helping soldiers return to the lives they left behind.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has a weekly radio program and last week he broadcast from the National Guard's home base, Camp Ripley. On the line from Iraq was Col. David Allessario, Brigade Commander.

The governor asked, "What are the things that we can best address for them as part of a reintegration effort?"

Allessario replied, "The first and most important one of all is our families. We want to get back to being normal. And I'm afraid after being gone for 22 months, many of us have forgotten what normal is."

Normal family life is a moving target. Jody Kramer has run a farm in the southwestern corner of Minnesota while her husband, a captain, has been gone.

"We're going to have some trouble, I think, because he's been commanding over a hundred soldiers, and they do what he tells them to," Kramer said. "I have six children that I have been trying to command, and I am sure we use different techniques. Things have changed, my kids have matured two years, and they probably have matured more than two years just because of the situation they've been in. And I've changed."

Ruby Pellant, 9, daughter of Daisy and Chief Warrant Officer Scott, says they'll have more pancakes when her dad comes home, but as she glances at her mom, she says she's a little worried.

"I think that in the mornings I'd be scared. Cuz remember when he visited, I was scared of him in the morning," Ruby said. "He was a little barky in the morning."

Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito commands the Minnesota National Guard. He calls the four-month extension a sucker punch, and says it will make re-entry exceptionally difficult.

"The problem is when they come back home, they'll get the hugs and kisses, they'll drink their favorite beer they couldn't drink over there," Shellito said. "They'll get mama's favorite meal cooked for them two or three times, then, about a week later, everyone goes back to work, kids go back to school, and they're home alone."

And alone can really mean alone in rural Minnesota. The 1st Brigade Combat team comes from 87 of the state's 89 counties, many of them quite isolated. Normal military policy gives a soldier a full 90 days off to reconnect at home after deployment. But Minnesota isn't taking any chances. Soldiers will be required to check in several times over those three months. Families can't always spot emerging psychological problems, Shellito said.

"Mama can't look him in the eye, wife can't look him in the eye. She'll know something's wrong," Shellito said. "But I'll tell you those buddies, those battle buddies — they'll know when he's happy, sad, lying, whatever."

The Minnesota National Guard also runs family reintegration academies around the state designed to deal with a plateful of issues ranging from taxes to insurance to children. All the advice can be a little overwhelming.

Linda Anderson, whose husband is in the Guard, said, "You go to all of these Beyond the Yellow Ribbon meetings, and all these family reintegration seminars where you hear about post-traumatic stress disorder, and financial problems, and re-igniting your marriage. You hear all the bad things that can happen to get you ready for your happy homecoming. Holy smokes, isn't this going to be fun."

Minnesota's 1st Brigade Combat Team is supposed to return in July, but as yet no hard date has been set for their return home.

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