It's a long way from fighting floods in the Red River Valley.

Instead it will be the sands of Iraq for more than 1,000 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division, who will begin a one-year assignment in February. The mission is to provide "leadership, command, control and in-depth staff analysis'' for a 16,000-person multinational task force that currently includes a handful of soldiers from Romania, El Salvador, Kazakhstan and Lithuania. The 34th will also work directly with more than 40,000 Iraqis who are in the Iraqi army, police force and Department of Border Enforcement.

The border to be enforced stretches from Iran in the east to Saudi Arabia to the west and south, comprising eight of Iraq's 18 provinces, which is a sector about the size of Minnesota itself. It's the third big assignment this decade for the Minnesota Guard: While there have been troops in Iraq since 2003, there was a call-up in 2006 and 2007 that involved more than 3,000. And more than 2,000 were sent to Bosnia and Kosovo to help enforce the Dayton Peace Accords.

This is the biggest mission yet, not just in Iraq but since World War II. "The scope of this mission is unprecedented for the modern Minnesota National Guard," said Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, when announcing the deployment.

The assignment, for which all Minnesotans can take pride, comes at a time when the future role of the Guard is a topic of debate in Washington. On Nov. 24, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered his department's leadership to review whether the military and Guard can adequately deal with domestic disasters and whether they have the training and equipment necessary to defend the country at home. His order came after he received an independent commission's report that concluded the military isn't ready for a major attack on the United States and that the Guard doesn't have adequate equipment and training for the job.

The debate at home won't stop the 34th. Led by Major General Richard Nash, the division is made up of four National Guard Units, deploying from Rosemount, Inver Grove Heights, Faribault and Stillwater. Its ranks include at least 273 Minnesota towns and cities. A few members are even from other states.

And true to the nature of the Guard, these are citizen soldiers reflective of society as a whole. Ages of those being deployed range from 18 to 59, with an average of 31. Many have families, with 37 percent leaving dependent children at home. It's the first deployment for two-thirds of the soldiers, but 27 percent will be on their second tours, 41 soldiers will be deployed for the third time and 22 will be returning to Iraq for the fourth time.

"We are no longer part of the strategic reserve" said Nash. "We are now an operational force."

After the deployment, there will still be nearly 12,000 Minnesota Guard members to respond to a state or national emergency. However, the shift from domestic duties to being the backstop in the case of a national emergency such as World War II is not without risks. At least that was one of the conclusions from the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. And that's what prompted Gates, who will continue on with the Obama administration, to order a broad review of the issue.

As has been their tradition, Minnesota's citizen-soldiers will serve their state -- and nation -- with distinction. Meanwhile, the incoming administration should continue to assess the role of the Guard in defending the country in the years to come, with an emphasis on domestic responsibilities.