At the same place and 150 years to the month after another famous First was mustered into service, members of the First Brigade Combat Team of the Minnesota Army National Guard got their official send-off to duty in Kuwait on Sunday.
In a departure ceremony Sunday morning at St. Paul's Historic Fort Snelling that was cut short by a downpour, members of the brigade were presented with the flag of the First Minnesota Regiment by re-enactors. The First Minnesota served with distinction during the Civil War, most notably on the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, when the regiment blunted the attack of an entire Confederate brigade, suffering tremendous casualties in the process.
The send-off precedes the second-largest deployment of Minnesota National Guard troops since World War II. Sometime in the next two to three months, 2,400 members of the First Brigade Combat Team will be sent to Kuwait to help with the reduction of forces as the U.S. military commitment to Iraq winds down. The First Brigade Combat Team is part of the 34th Infantry Division, also known as the "Red Bulls." The tour of duty is to last a year.
Many of the members of the First Brigade have had several deployments.
"There are quite a few that have had three or four deployments," said Maj. Kristen Auge , deputy director of public affairs for the Minnesota National Guard. "Some have even had six, and not all have been to Iraq; some have been to Bosnia and Kosovo."
For Sgt. Alex Barnes, 32, of Minneapolis, the deployment to Kuwait will mark the second time he's been sent to the Iraq theater. The first was in 2004-05 with another unit of the 34th Division. Then, he was posted to Baghdad, serving with a signal company providing communications support for a unit from another state. This time, he will be assigned to the brigade headquarters, providing communications support for the brigade.
"I guess I'm looking forward to it in a sense because many people have had two or three deployments before me," said Barnes, who attended the Fort Snelling ceremony along with about 200 other First Brigade soldiers, as well as his wife and parents. "I feel like it's another notch in the proverbial belt. I'm excited to be a part of our historic mission to be drawing down our forces in Iraq and wrapping things up there. ... Of course, I'll miss my wife and family, but we've been through it before, and they've been very supportive."
Barnes was impressed with the flag-transferring ceremony connecting the First Brigade Combat Team with the historic First Minnesota Regiment.
"I thought it was a really nice touch to have the First Minnesota re-enactment team there to reinforce that continuity and sense of service from the Civil War on ...," he said. "That was what I thought most about, that heritage that we represent and carry forward."
Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., attended the ceremony. Each of the six battalions in the brigade was represented in the ceremony.
Barnes' wife, Kristeen Bullwinkle, noted they had been married only two days before he got shipped off to Iraq on his last deployment. Still, there's a duty to be done.
"I'm proud of him," she said. "You know, of the group of people he deployed with last time, almost everybody has been through a second or third deployment. So, I didn't think, 'Oh, no, not again.' I thought, 'Here's our time to serve again,' and I think everybody in his unit has wanted to serve."
Various units within the First Brigade Combat Team have already had their own local ceremonies in Fairmont, St. James and Ramsey. There will be more, including those scheduled May 26 in Hibbing and Brainerd, May 27 in Cloquet and Duluth, and four on Memorial Day, Auge said. Members of the brigade will be sent in various stages to Fort McCoy, Wis., for training before being shipped out to Kuwait.
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547