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In Chisago City, two little daughters bake Christmas cookies for a father they can start to get to know again after his yearlong deployment fixing helicopters in Iraq. In Fairmont, a teenage girl writes a letter to Santa asking for a new American flag to fly outside her church while her father is deployed to the Middle East. In Madelia, a mother wrestles with the unwelcome distinction that her 20-year-old son was the last Minnesota soldier killed in the war.
When the United States drew the curtain on the Iraq war this month, the final costs were totaled: 4,500 Americans killed; 32,000 Americans wounded, $800 billion spent.
In Minnesota's small towns, which supplied most of the state's soldiers and bore the greatest burden of the war's casualties, the human tally is still being counted. In Chisago City there is relief. In Fairmont, anxiety. In Madelia, anguish.
Kate Fossey remembers the moment of relief, the instant when she knew that her part of the war was over -- the arrival of her husband, Sgt. First Class Brad Fossey, on U.S. soil at Fort Hood, Texas. Brad Fossey completed his second yearlong Iraq tour with a St. Cloud-based National Guard helicopter company right before Thanksgiving and was home to celebrate with his wife and two daughters.
"It was like I had run a marathon and now it was over, it felt that good," she said.
Their tidy home overlooking Green Lake in Chisago City, 40 miles north of the Twin Cities, is a far cry from the trailer that Brad shared with two others in an old Iraqi army base north of Baghdad. It was his second deployment as a husband but his first as a father. The couple brought a near-military discipline to their preparation. They bought a new water softener so that Kate wouldn't have to lug the 40-pound bags of salt. She took advantage of a military subsidy to sign up the kids for 16 hours a week of child care. She joined the YMCA.
They'd learned from the first deployment not to bother each other with small things. When a tree blew down and damaged their roof, Kate took responsibility for hiring contractors and getting repairs done without much input from Brad, who could do little from Iraq.
Brad, a full-time member of the Guard, supervised a helicopter maintenance crew that was part of a unit that had more flight hours per Chinook helicopter than any other company in Afghanistan or Iran.
When combat operations in Iraq officially ended, there was no celebration for the family. Church bells didn't ring in Chisago City. There hasn't been a round of drinks or someone picking up a dinner tab for the Fosseys. Brad, who has been in the military 25 years, likes it that way, preferring the relative quiet of spending time with the girls.
Since coming home he has joined in their play dates. They've planned family vacations, mostly to water parks. He won't go back to work until January.
"With these guys, we're going 100 miles an hour," Kate said, pointing to the girls.
But Brad said the relief of being home is tempered by another reality: The country remains at war in Afghanistan. That means the possibility of another deployment before the end of his military career.
"I don't think we're going to have that feeling of sailors kissing women in the streets because it's all over," he said. "Afghanistan is still going on."
In Fairmont, a quiet farm town of a little more than 10,000 near the Iowa border, the end of the Iraq war doesn't mean the troops are coming home. This summer, soldiers from the area were part of a contingent of 2,400 Minnesota National Guard members who left for a 12-month deployment to Kuwait, putting lives, including that of the town's fire chief, on hold, many for the second time.
The Fairmont unit was part of a 2006 deployment that ended up being the longest of any to Iraq.
This is deeply patriotic country.
"We'll take care of them," said Fairmont Mayor Randy Quiring. "We sure come together for the people who are in this town. It's a good community and people do band together. That's what we're all about."
Even the town's most visible peace activist adamantly supports the soldiers abroad. "I'm not anti-military. Those are great people," said Judi Poulson, a leader of the Fairmont Peace Group. "People in small towns are very patriotic and they are very proud of their country. That's why they sign up."
Up the road, the Forstner family has decorated their Main Street home in Madelia for Christmas with red, white and blue lights. An American flag adorns the porch along with a "Support the Troops" flag. Two members of the family are deployed with the Minnesota Guard. It's the second tour for oldest brother T.J., who came home this month on leave.
Brothers Dusty and T.J. work for the family business, building fire trucks. Their departure has again forced some adjustments in the seven-employee firm. Nevertheless, their father, Vince, takes comfort in knowing that this deployment has been less dangerous for his sons than the one in 2006, when a soldier in T.J.'s unit lost a leg and another was burned in an explosion.
"I'm surprised they ended up there twice," Vince said. "It's different this time. The tone of their voices. It's just easier. T.J. says it's boring, but we'll take that."
Local volunteers are active in making sure soldiers and their families are not forgotten. At a recent Christmas party at the armory, the highlight of the evening was Santa popping out of the top of a tank, delivering presents the kids had asked for in letters a month earlier. He delivered a flag to the girl who had wanted to replace a tattered one outside her church.
For Sarah Jacobs, who arrived with her three young children in tow, events like the Christmas party are a welcome relief. Her husband, Ben, a Guard staff sergeant in Kuwait, is on his second deployment to the Middle East and won't be home until summer. She often gets the feeling the rest of the world has moved on.
"For many families left on the home front, it won't feel like the 'war is over' until each soldier is home," she said. "It's really sad to think that so many people jump to a conclusion that each and every soldier serving somewhere overseas will be coming home because the war in Iraq is over."
The ends of the yellow ribbons tied to every tree along Main Street in Madelia are getting a little tattered after six months. It's been that long since the town learned that 20-year-old Madelia native Army Specialist Emilio Campo Jr. had been killed in Iraq.
The town of 2,400 in south-central Minnesota won't need the fading ribbons to remind it that the end of the war will not mean the end of the pain. Campo, a onetime high school homecoming king who was known as Junior, was the last of 78 Minnesotans killed in the war. He joined the Army in his junior year of high school. His family needed the money and he wanted to use his military experience to pursue a career in medicine.
In June, Campo, a medic assigned to a field artillery unit from Fort Riley, Kan., was one of five soldiers killed in a rocket attack at a military camp outside Baghdad. After the news hit Madelia, it seemed like it took less than half an hour before the Campo home was packed with neighbors. The crowd for the funeral was so huge that overflow had to be accommodated at a nearby elementary school. The yellow ribbons have been up ever since.
"It was very nice to see we had a lot of support," said Emilio's mother, Mirna. "I am in my car and I see all those yellow ribbons, it reminds me. He is in my head all the time."
At a cemetery outside of town, friends and relatives have placed trinkets over the still-unsettled earth of Emilio's grave -- sunglasses, a liter of water, a racing car, a teddy bear. A banner waves in the prairie wind. It says "Pray for Peace."
For 18-year-old Arturo Rubaldino, Emilio's cousin, the end of the war won't mean the end of the anger. Promotional brochures for the military take up a shelf along with literature for colleges and technical schools at the guidance counselor's office at Madelia High School, where Arturo is a senior. He says military recruiters have been relentless in pursuing him. A few classmates have signed up. But he refuses to even acknowledge the recruiters when they come or call.
"I think my family has sacrificed enough," he said.
Emilio's deployment would have been up this month, and it is not lost on his mother that he will be remembered as the last Minnesotan to die in Iraq. One recent night, she said, she was turning off lights to go to bed and looked up at the large picture of her son in the living room. As she often does, she spoke to him.
"I say, 'Junior, why did it have to be you? We need you here,'" she said. "Not that I would want another mother to be suffering."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434