She was a specialist in the Minnesota Guard, and her job was straightforward: to guard the gate at a base in southern Iraq. That's what she did from March 2009 until February.

Sasha Bell returned from a deployment with the Minnesota National Guard to celebrate her one-year wedding anniversary (she was married 10 days before she left) and also to find herself in the spotlight as the 10,000th recipient of a unique statewide military appreciation program.

Founded by investment manager and philanthropist Eugene Sit, the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical initiative started as a way to thank the state's military members and their families. Grants are available to all Minnesota military personnel who have served in a combat zone since September 2001. Since August 2005, the fund has given out more than $6 million in grants.

The soft-spoken Bell, 21, of Shoreview, found out about the fund through her chain of command and received a $500 check in a ceremony this week at the State Capitol.

"I kind of thought the patriotism wasn't really there until I got there and we had Operation Minnesota Nice, where people would send us care packages and then I found out about this program, too," she said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who attended the ceremony as the commander-in-chief of the Minnesota Air and Army National Guard, said he recalled a Minnesota soldier approaching him during a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan.

"A soldier asked me once, 'Do people remember us and do they appreciate what we are doing?' The appreciation fund is one way that Minnesota answers that question," he said.

Fifty-four families of service members killed in action have received $5,000 grants and 315 soldiers injured in action have received grants ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 depending on the severity of their injuries. Every Minnesota service member who has served in combat since September 2001 is eligible for a $500 grant.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434