DULUTH – Amid a fluorescent landscape of guitars on walls, watches behind counters and used power tools on shelves, the Pawn America showroom was in a preholiday frenzy.
Guys in stocking caps made their way around the room with armloads of bargain-priced DVDs. A woman walked out the door with both a sense of satisfaction and cash in hand after making a deal, but not before telling the man behind the counter: “I work a 40-hour week job and not just the sitting-down kind.”
In a backroom, though, something more was going on.
Three soldiers dug deep into piles of DVDs and video games on a table, stacking them neatly in cardboard boxes. A family helped. Within an hour, more than 1,000 movies and 500 video games were packed, with PlayStations and extra controllers thrown in.
It was a small gesture for a group of people few may be thinking about — the 100 members of the Duluth-based 312th Army Reserve Engineer Company, who deployed to Kuwait in April. When they left, they were told to expect to be gone for 400 days.
To a nation fatigued by 15 years of Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be easy to forget about those who remain on the front lines. But thousands are still there or are headed overseas.
Earlier this month, the Army announced 3,800 soldiers will deploy to Kuwait this winter. The U.S. also is expected to maintain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through year’s end and keep 5,500 troops at a small number of bases in 2017.
Jennilee Anderson, whose husband, Timothy, is a sergeant on his first deployment, said people often don’t believe her when she tells them he is in the military and deployed overseas.
“They say, ‘Well, there’s no war.’ But there is,” she said.
Anderson is the family readiness group coordinator for the 312th, a task made more difficult by the distance between many families in the unit, which is made up of soldiers from Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.
She remains fearful. A suicide bomber recently struck less than a mile from where some members of the 312th were staying.
“When they come home it’s going to be hard for them to adjust,” Anderson said. “Our husbands have already told us that.”
Last week’s shipment to the troops was the brainchild of Brian Bergson, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Air Force Reserve and remembered the isolation he sometimes felt.
Bergson was in the Pawn America on University Avenue in St. Paul looking for movies for his sons one recent Tuesday and decided to approach Pawn America CEO Brad Rixmann about contributing.
Bergson knew Rixmann from his days working in communications for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. Bergson also has a friend deployed with the 312th, a horizontal engineering company that constructs roads and airfields.
“You don’t want to be forgotten,” Bergson said. “You want people to know you are actually there doing something because, quite, frankly, the mission gets so muddled sometimes that you wonder, ‘Are we really making a difference? Does anyone really appreciate that we’re here? Does anyone even care?’ ”
Rixmann, best known as the ebullient pitchman for his pawnshops on local television, readily agreed.
“It’s not talked about and we go about our daily lives as if there’s not a war going on,” said Rixmann, who was in Duluth last week helping to gather supplies. “We don’t hear about it so we become somewhat numb.”
The staff of the University Avenue store in St. Paul collected several hundred movies and games and sheathed them in plastic. After Bergson and Rixmann added a few more items, the cache was then shipped to the Duluth store, where three members of the 312th who were not deployed stopped by last week to help pack them in boxes.
They hoped the soldiers would receive the goods in time for the holidays. But any acknowledgment from home will be welcomed, no matter when it arrives.
“You work hard all day and then you come home and you’re living in a little box and you have to share it with two other people. If you have something like this to occupy your time it’s a big help,” said Sgt. Banchee Barnett, who joined the unit right after it was deployed and helped with the packing.
Bergson’s friend, First Lt. Louis Goldstein, is now a platoon leader in Afghanistan working on improving roads, base defenses and infrastructure. At the end of this deployment, he will have been deployed and away from his family for 18 months. He said the gifts from back home will be welcomed.
“During this time of year everyone misses home a little bit more than before,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Movies become a way to escape. They give you the opportunity to disappear and relax from the grind of a long deployment.”
Goldstein, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, said there is little focus on whether people back home are aware of what the troops face.
“It makes no difference if the American people as a majority even know what we are doing here,” he wrote. “To us, all that matters is taking care of the person next to you so they can get home to their families. Doing a job we volunteered to do for our country.”