There is a knoll which provides a slightly elevated view of Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
On Saturday, February 25, this United States Army base in the Kuwaiti “barr” (desert) was the location of the latest “Serving Our Troops” mission to the Minnesota National Guard. We were traveling to the base with orders from Deputy Commanding General of Operations, Gary H. Cheek.
Upon this knoll, only a short distance from the Persian Gulf, the smells and sights of a Minnesota barbecue were drifting over Area 6 near the DFAC (“mess hall”) and TAC (auditorium). In a mild drizzle reminiscent of a May overcast day in St. Paul, volunteers grilled 2,500 fresh cut steaks at Camp Arifjan which had made the 6,300 mile journey from Minnesota.
Under the tutelage of such experts as Dan O'Gara and Nick Mancini, bag after bag of charcoal fueled a 10-15 foot grill providing, in the words of Adjutant Major General Richard Nash, a “little piece of home” with the steaks made to order.
The smoke was billowing, the steaks were turning, Pat Harris was talking with his Cretin High School classmate, LTC Don Hoben, the soldiers were queuing up and 5:00 p.m. arrived. The loudspeaker system kicked into action.
Across acres of barracks, miles of concrete blast walls, trailers of showers and latrines, a baseball/softball diamond (no grass infield here), Humvees, soldiers and sailors of many religions, races, ethnicities, home states, missions and skills perform their duty for the United States armed forces.
Across this forward position of the American armed forces in the Middle East far from the United States and far from Minnesota, all the personnel stopped their activities. From our elevated position, we could see everyone from all ranks saluting the colors with the flags of the State of Minnesota and Kuwait flying next to the flag of the United States. It was a poignant moment thinking about all the American armed forces personnel throughout the world and throughout history saluting the colors during “Retreat.”
“Serving Our Troops” could also be called “Saluting Our Troops” because providing the steak and the "piece of home" is a salute to our Minnesota National Guard and the entire American military and the families for the sacrifice they make in the service of our country.
The statistics are compelling and sobering from the perspective of the Minnesota National Guard. Since September 11, 2001, the 14,000 member Minnesota National Guard has made 20,000 individual deployments to Iraq/Kuwait and Afghanistan. Many soldiers and airmen have made multiple deployments leaving behind their families and jobs for extended periods of time. There have been casualties and deaths in combat. Throughout it all, the strong reputation of all Minnesota National Guard units has grown acquiring great responsibility wherever the Minnesota units have been deployed – sometimes in command of regular army units.
Illustrative of the service of Minnesota National Guard units deployed abroad has been the current mission of the First Combat Brigade Team of the 34th Infantry Division. Preparation for their mission included training at Camp Ripley at Little Falls and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. (Click here to read my Your Voices post about the Minnesota National Guard.) The current mission of escorting men and material as part of the American draw down in Iraq has been partly completed. The brigade has been deployed to Kuwait since and is hopeful of a springtime return to the United States.
The salute to the troops of “Serving Our Troops” began as an idea of Pat Harris, John Marshall, Ted Davis, Dennis Rosemark, Zack Ryan and Mike Zipko who conceived of the idea of providing something to Minnesota National Guard personnel they could enjoy – practically anytime – a fresh, steak dinner. Eight years and 70,000 steaks later, "Serving Our Troops" has brought Minnesota steaks to United States military installations at Fort McCoy, Fort Sill and Camp Shelby and abroad to Kosovo, Iraq and now Kuwait.
In addition to Camp Arifjan, “Serving Our Troops” volunteers provided steak meals at Camp Buehring, Camp Virginia, Ali Al Salem and Camp Patriot at the Kuwait Naval Base.
Meanwhile, to complete the circuit of family support, the families of the deployed enjoyed the same meal and festivities at the St. Paul RiverCentre. More than 300 volunteers from the following companies and firms served the 3,000 Minnesota National Guard members: Delta Air Lines, Hubbard Broadcasting, Morrisey Hospitality Companies, August Schell Brewery, Lockridge Grindal Nauen and Best Buy.
All six of the events from the military camps in Kuwait to the RiverCentre were connected by live video.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Betty McCollum and Mayor Chris Coleman representing Minnesota’s political officials spoke at the RiverCentre. (Mayor Ardell Brede of Rochester participated in the mission to Camp Arifjan.)
Adjutant Major General Nash spoke for the Minnesota National Guard.
The great irony in this great logistical enterprise to provide a small measure of our thanks is the gratitude received from the Minnesota National Guard personnel and the soldiers from throughout the country. Lt. Matthew Lipsky e-mailed me:
“It was an absolute pleasure meeting you Friday night! Our small group in the desert appreciated the delicious hamentashen you brought from home.
“I wish you could have seen some of my shipmates and Army brethren when they saw the steak (made from real meat J). Some have not had such a treat for about a year. The DFAC serves steak, but it just doesn't quite look, well, like what you served. You and your awesome organization have really given a nice morale booster; know you've touched many of us here.”
SFC Miriam Fayas wrote:
“Thank you for coming to Kuwait in support of the troops. Without people like you our job is much harder and more demanding. I’m so thankful for the support you have shown us as well as the Hadassah group back home. I can’t express enough thanks for what you have done for the troops and veterans. Thank you very much.”