The Minnesota Guard soldiers back from Iraq were honored, along with their families, for their service and sacrifice.
Kyle Kuepker gets irritated by bad drivers, but he no longer loathes trips to the supermarket. And a dinner at a restaurant or a night at the movies puts a smile on his face.
After 22 months in Iraq, Kuepker is getting reacquainted with Jill, his wife of 10 years, and adjusting back to civilian life and the simple pleasures he used to take for granted -- such as choices.
"It's refreshing to go to the store and see the shelves stocked full instead of going to the local PX," said Kuepker, who recently ended his tour of duty overseas with the Minnesota National Guard. "It really is a SuperTarget."
Kuepker was one of nearly 1,000 soldiers with the First Brigade Team of the 34th Infantry Division who returned stateside a few weeks ago and who were honored with an official welcome-home ceremony Sunday evening at the Bloomington Sheraton Hotel.
The soldiers were commended for their integrity, courage, valor, duty, heroism and sacrifice. They also were saluted for their generosity.
"You are our role models," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who addressed the crowd of 150 soldiers and their friends and family members in attendance. "You raised your hand and answered the call to your country when it was in need. We are grateful to you."
No unit in the nation spent longer fighting in Iraq than the 2,600 Minnesota National Guard soldiers who spent 16 months in the Iraq combat zone. Originally set to return in February, they found their tour extended by four months, making them the longest-serving unit since the war began March 19, 2003.
"That was a long extension to have to deal with having two boys," said Theresa Barr, of St. Croix Falls, Wis., whose husband, John Barr, served as an assistant operations director for the Brigade Troops Battalion. "The boys [Jack, 6, and Brady, 4] need their father."
Amid the smiles, hugs and relief expressed by friends and family members that their loved ones are safely back home, Guard members took time during the one-hour ceremony to pause and remember three in their unit who died in the line of duty: Sgt. Brent W. Koch, 22, of Morgan, Minn.; Sgt. Nicholas D. Turcotte, 23, of Maple Grove, and Sgt. Thomas W. Clemons, 37, of Leitchfield, Ky. The unit members honored Sunday made up the Brigade Troops Battalion nicknamed "Task Force Wild" in honor of the Minnesota Wild. It was one of four Minnesota units that served in Iraq.
Jill Kuepker got through being apart from her husband by running two marathons, two half-marathons and several triathlons.
"Emotions run hot," she said. "You have to deal with this somehow."
The Kuepkers are moving from New Harmony, Ind., at the end of this week to Shakopee, where they bought a house.
Kyle Kuepker, who led 180 men and women in Iraq as commander of the Brigade Troops Battalion, said he and Jill have made a point since his return to go on date nights, "so we can continue to move on the same sheet music."
Unit picks up many awards
And he's learning to navigate Twin Cities roads. Kuepker said he gets "escalated" if other drivers are doing the wrong things, such as abruptly changing lanes or driving too slow.
As the Kuepkers waited in the lobby before the festivities, Pawlenty approached them. "Thanks for putting up with this," he said to Jill. And to Kyle: "We appreciate all that you have done."
While in Iraq, unit members distinguished themselves in combat, picking up one silver star, the Army's third-highest award, along with 220 bronze stars, 32 purple hearts, 771 medals of commendation, 136 combat infantry badges, 302 combat infantry badges and 14 combat medical badges.
The troops cleared more than 120 improvised explosive devices, operated 14 convoy escort teams and completed reconstruction projects totaling more than $400,000, and had security, military intelligence and communications responsibilities.