For the second time in four months, Minnesotans are mourning the combat deaths of two National Guard members at once.
The Minnesota soldiers were killed Saturday in Iraq when a bomb exploded near their vehicle while they were on patrol near the battle-torn city of Fallujah, the Department of Defense confirmed Monday.
Specialists Bryan T. McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, and Corey J. Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls, were deployed to Iraq in March.
The incident underscores the fact that some of the 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops in Iraq are operating in the especially volatile and violent Anbar Province, west of Baghdad. Bases there routinely come under mortar fire from insurgents.
In late August, two Guard members were killed within several days in separate roadside bombings.
The latest deaths bring to five the number of Minnesota National Guard members who have died in a yearlong deployment to Iraq. Eighty members of the 1st Brigade, in which state Guard members are serving, have received Purple Hearts, indicative of wounds suffered during combat.
In addition to operating in Anbar Province, the Minnesotans drive supply convoys on roads in southern Iraq, where improvised explosive devices are often hidden. Guard members also provide medical care for injured Iraqis and reconnect water supplies to war-damaged systems.
`So close to home'
"We're so proud of his courage and bravery," said Shannon McDonough, 24, Bryan McDonough's sister. "But this is something no family should have to go through. You think of the hundreds and
thousands of people over there, and it's sad this had to hit so close to home."
Most of the Minnesotans were deployed in March for yearlong tours, and many have returned home for brief leaves, filling blogs and family photo albums before returning. Some have come home to
see their babies for the first time. While the Minnesota Guard makes up the bulk of the deployment, about 1,500 members from four other states are also involved. Soldiers in units in the 1st Brigade come from more than 33 Minnesota communities, and the deployment has had the largest effect yet on the state's 12,800 troops in the Guard since World War II. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, almost 8,000 Guard members have served on active duty.
`Only doing his job'
"On behalf of the soldiers of the 1st Brigade and the men and women of the Minnesota National Guard, I express my heartfelt sympathy to the Rystad and McDonough families," Guard commander Lt. Col. Kevin Gutknecht said during a news conference Monday in Crookston.
Rystad and McDonough were assigned to B Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, based in Crookston, and had been deployed to Iraq in March.
Gutknecht said two other soldiers were wounded when the Humvee in which the four were riding was rocked by a bomb. One of the wounded soldiers "was very severely injured" and was hospitalized in Germany, Gutknecht said, adding that the other was treated for a minor injury and was expected to return to duty. He said that "privacy considerations" prevented him from releasing the names of the two wounded soldiers.
Gutknecht read a short statement from McDonough's father, Tom, in which he said that his son would have been "furious" to be called a hero.
"He claimed to be only doing his job like the rest of the men and women in Iraq," the statement said. "I wish that Bryan were here to be furious right now."
Fun-loving and loyal
Bryan McDonough, who played hockey and lacrosse at Roseville Area High School, was a popular and loyal friend who always tried to make sure others were happy, friends and family said. He was also an avid bass fisherman and hunter, joining his father and brother in the outdoors at the family cabin near Danbury, Wis.
His father said he joined the Guard in September 2003, after he saw that many of those killed and injured early in the war were older men with families.
"He was 19; he decided he was the guy who should be there," his father said.
One longtime friend, Craig Rosenthal, said McDonough had been "nervous" about returning to Iraq while home on leave in September. But family members said he never wanted them to worry about his safety.
"He always snuck his way through everything," said his brother, Kevin McDonough, 18. "I never thought it would be him."
Caring and insightful
Rystad's death may be the first of a soldier from the northwest Minnesota city of Red Lake Falls since the Vietnam War, said Cheryl Matzke, who had Rystad in her English classes.
"In a community this size, it's as though we've all lost a son," she said. She recalled him as a "high B" student and solid performer on the hockey, football and baseball teams.
Rystad joined the military immediately after graduating from Lafayette High School in Red Lake Falls in 2004. His father, James, was a deputy sheriff, and his mother, Donna, a registered nurse.
His brother, Brian, 18, said that in recent e-mails, Corey wanted news of the family deer hunt and the University of North Dakota hockey team, whose games Brian Rystad would burn onto DVDs for his brother to watch in Iraq. Corey always downplayed the danger he faced, Brian said. "He was always talking positive," he said. "We were making plans to go to college together when he got out, in Detroit Lakes. He wanted to go for radiology."
Matzke added that while many in the small town are grieving, "This is not a time for reflection on whether the war is right or wrong. The point is that he was serving and was proud to serve. Corey was doing [the job] for us."
Minnesota war toll now 47
Funeral arrangements for both men are pending.
The deaths raised to 47 the number of people with strong Minnesota ties who have died in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We mourn the loss of these two soldiers; they were truly part of our National Guard family," said Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, the adjutant general of Minnesota. "We will never forget their dedication, loyalty and bravery."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.