The sacrifice of the Minnesota National Guard (“MNNG”) members and their families in this era of multiple overseas deployments is tremendous. The support for MNNG soldiers, airmen, and their families from business, media and philanthropic communities has also been tremendous. The Chaplaincy Corps of the MNNG is also continuing its outreach to the faith communities to bring those resources to bear in support of the MNNG.
Recently, Lt. Col. John Morris, the Minnesota National Guard State Chaplain, invited Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to Fort McCoy, WI, to see the training of Minnesota soldiers in connection with their deployment to Kuwait and Iraq.
Described below is part of what we saw and learned.
From 1,500 feet, eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin is a series of bucolic farms and tranquil small towns. The heavy rains of the past two months coupled with the warm and sunny days of July has left the countryside green with life and crops. The dairy and corn heartland of the nation shimmers with agricultural productivity.
Half a world away a different terrain and climate awaits the 1st Combat Brigade Team (“1BCT”) of the 34th Infantry Division – “The Red Bulls” of the Minnesota National Guard. The 2,400 strong brigade is completing its state-side training at Fort McCoy this month. Not long from now, this brigade of Minnesota men and women (Fargo and Superior, also) will arrive in the Kuwait desert of 120 degrees with an assignment, among other things, to protect convoys removing American soldiers and material from Iraq.
The idyll of soft, rolling Minnesota and Wisconsin countryside and two lane county highways will be replaced on a frequent journey through marshes, arid lands and north to the cacophonous and sprawling Baghdad – (yet needed for roadside bombs and ambushes).
This is also a metaphor for the mission “terrain” in which the MNNG has found itself since September 11, 2001.
The metrics are sobering and suggestive. As I learned from Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, at his installation ceremony, the Minnesota National Guard is the fifth largest per capita with 14,000 soldiers and air force personnel. Since 9/11, the Minnesota National Guard has deployed 22,000 service personnel (with many deployed multiple times) to Iraq and Afghanistan.
This August, 2011, deployment of the 1st Brigade Combat Team will be one of the largest overseas deployments of the MNNG since World War II. Minnesota’s contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mirrors the evolution of the National Guard from strategic mission to operational components of the United States armed forces. Despite the stress of the overseas deployment commitment, the MNNG also maintains its humanitarian mission of disaster relief in the Upper Midwest.
At this critical juncture for the MNNG (an entity whose ancestry includes the first of Minnesota’s heroics and sacrifice at the Battle of Gettysburg – it knows something about critical junctures), Lt. Col. Morris is continuing his efforts to integrate the faith communities into the network of support for the Minnesota National Guard, its deployed personnel and the families (and employers) left behind.
Chaplain Morris is one of the co-creators along with Lt. Gen. (brevet) Larry W. Shellito of the nationally recognized, award-winning Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program. He is a plain-spoken and direct son of the military with a wry sense of humor with boundless determination for his chaplains to achieve excellence in pursuit of their vital mission. He has also earned his paratrooper’s wings although he is not one to “parachute” into a situation as he seemingly knows everyone and everything about the Minnesota National Guard and its disparate missions.
Flying by Blackhawk helicopter to Fort McCoy were a number of leaders from the Minnesota faith community: Gail Anderson, Minnesota Council of Churches; Rev. Carl Nelson, Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals; Rev. Grant Abbott, St. Paul Area Council of Churches; Father Kevin McDonough, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Rev. Ralph Gustafson, Bethel University; Rev. Alan Bolte, United Methodist – Northstar Division; and Abdisalam Adam, Islamic Civic Society of America.
In short, it was Christians, Muslims and Jews visiting Fort McCoy to see the preparations of Minnesota Christians, Muslims and Jews for deployment half a world away.
In our journey, we learned fascinating facts and met the Minnesota soldiers who will be conducting this mission.
Col. Eric D. Kerska explained the “dynamic” mission contemplated for the 1BCT in conditions in Iraq which range from 130 degrees in the summer to 30-40 degrees in the winter. Col. Kerska noted the faith community is indispensible for monitoring the morale and providing assistance to the families of the deployed.
The convoy protection duty associated with the draw down will challenge the brigade as security concerns heighten. According to The New York Times, Iran is strengthening its proxies in Iraq in order to take credit for the United States withdrawal through increased attacks on American troops which includes small arms attacks and the planting and demolition of IEDs.
Maj. Paul D. Rickert (participating in his fourth deployment) provided additional background about the deployment of the 1BCT. Participating in “Operation New Dawn” is the second largest deployment for a Minnesota National Guard unit since the Second World War. The 1BCT will be stationed in Kuwait for its convoy security mission both bringing supplies to military personnel remaining in Iraq and assisting in the withdrawal of personnel and material being removed from collapsed bases. Nine hundred Oklahoma National Guard and four hundred Mississippi National Guard personnel will join the 1BCT.
The 1BCT is a mixture of soldiers facing their initial deployment and veterans being deployed again. Sixty percent are being deployed for the first time; twenty-three percent for the second time; and twelve percent for the third time.
Accompanying the 1BCT are 6 chaplains and 6 assistants from Minnesota Army National Guard. Their mission is to “accomplish and support the specified religious, spiritual and ethical needs of soldiers in accordance with command responsibilities.” Pastoral and spiritual counseling is provided to the 1BCT which reflects a cross section of Minnesotans. Fifty-eight communities are providing more than ten soldiers. Forty-nine percent of the soldiers provided a Protestant religious preference. Twenty-three percent provided a Catholic religious preference. Thirty percent provided no religious preference. There are Jewish and Muslim personnel meaning all three monotheistic faiths are represented. Maj. Rickert noted the chaplaincy corps is not as diverse in Minnesota as it has a shortage of priests, imams and rabbis.
The Chaplains, in the eyes of Maj. Rickert, give life to the Constitution as well as standing astride the tensions embroiled in the Constitution. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is vindicated with priests saying mass, pastors leading services, rabbis conducting seders and imams ministering to soldiers. The Constitution, however, protects soldiers who profess no faith and/or the imposition of a faith not their own upon them during their service to their country. At bottom, the chaplains are trained and motivated to help all military personnel of all religions or no religion.
We were also introduced to Chaplains Winn, Chavez and Cedergren and their chaplain assistants Davis, Martinez and Staff Sgt. Novacek. Chaplain Martinez, from Brainerd, noted the history of the 194th Tank Battalion which was stationed in the Philippines at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many died and some survived the Bataan Death March. The 194th’s motto is: “Remember Bataan, never forget.”
One of the most inspiring moments was meeting the 1st Battalion 125 Field Artillery from New Ulm in their barracks. The soldiers were engaged in tactics review in preparation of convoy protection duty. The group met Lt., non-commissioned officer and twenty-something women and men who will be “in-country” in Kuwait and Iraq starting in the fall. They live in a World War II era barracks with little privacy and less air conditioning in the midst of a hot Midwestern summer. (Fort McCoy covers 60,000 acres with thousands of soldiers preparing for deployment or returning from deployment.) Seeing African American soldiers and white soldiers living together, executing their mission together, no doubt saving each other once deployed is a reflection of the farsighted decision of President Truman in 1947, six years before the decision of Brown v. Board, to desegregate the armed forces, making the military one of the most diverse American institutions.
We learned about the resources available to MNNG personnel and their families. One of the most important initiatives is the Minnesota National Guard’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program. According to the Minnesota National Guard, the program provides assistance to combat veterans and their families as well as providing support to the families while the service personnel are deployed. Support areas include financial, legal and psychological services and training to help reintegrate the service member upon returning to Minnesota. In 2008, Congress mandated Minnesota’s Yellow Ribbon Program as the national standard for all returning National Guard and Reserve soldiers and family members.