Seventy soldiers from the St. Cloud-based Company B, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment returned to Minnesota Wednesday, arriving at the St. Cloud National Guard Avation facility to a gathering of cheering family and friends.
This nation has been at war for an entire decade.
It's hard to remember at what point the reports of soldiers killed or maimed ceased to rock us, or when the personal sacrifices of thousands of men, women and their families started to fade into the backdrop of our everyday life.
Nobody expected us to be at this 10 years after Osama bin Laden's cohorts flew those planes into the Twin Towers; the early, heady days of shock and awe on the road to Baghdad long ago gave way to a grinding endurance for our soldiers and their families.
The Star Tribune has been covering what these conflicts mean, and the toll they have taken on Minnesota and our troops, from the very beginning. We sent reporters and photographers to Afghanistan, where the hunt for Bin Laden first began, several times over the last decade.
In 2003, as American troops poured into Iraq, journalists Kevin Diaz, Paul McEnroe, Sharon Schmickle, Pat Doyle, Mike Zerby and Richard Sennott all had on-the-ground assignments to cover the war as we chronicled the efforts of Minnesota's National Guard and others to take down Saddam, to root out Al-Qaida, and to prepare Iraq for democracy of some sort.
As the conflicts dragged on, we sent Mark Brunswick to Iraq in 2005 as troops tried to build a post-Saddam world. He went back again in 2006, and then to Afghanistan in 2010, along with Sennott, exploring the intractable, interminable nature of war in that country.
Now, as this chapter in our history finally draws to a close, for better or for worse, we again want to be there in words, pictures and video to chronicle our soldiers' long march home, and their efforts to shed war from their psyches and reenter day-to-day life. Brunswick, the only full-time military affairs reporter in the state, will be taking on this assignment for us this year.
Already, he points out in today's front-page story, there are signs that this won't be an easy adjustment. This reentry doesn't resemble that of the Vietnam War, where Americans spat on soldiers and blamed the troops who served for the unpopular decisions taken by the country's leadership. In fact, it seems, Americans have gone out of their way not to let that ugly period in our history repeat itself.
That doesn't mean we are necessarily rolling out the proverbial red carpet or throwing a ticker-tape parade.
After years of war, many troops are returning home to find that their old jobs have been given to someone else, or that they are being offered fewer hours or benefits, even though federal laws are supposed to protect the jobs of those who are already making sacrifices to serve their country. Minnesota has one of the highest unemployment gaps in the country between veterans and civilians, despite significant efforts of some individual companies.
Reclaiming a steady job won't be the only challenge for returning soldiers, who will need to get reacquainted with their children, their spouses and their communities. Some have come home with physical injuries in need of treatment, others with emotional or mental trauma they simply cannot shake.
How the Department of Veterans Affairs, employers and loved ones cope with these injuries will help determine how well the troops rejoin life as they once knew it in Minnesota.
"We're going to try and do this with more than just anecdotal stories," Brunswick said. "We'll be using government data and Freedom of Information Act requests to try and drill down with more specificity about how some of these issues are showing themselves."
As Brunswick points out: We don't expect all of these stories to be filled with conflict or despair.
There are joyous reunions, as men and women come home to spouses and children, and relearn the pleasure of green grass underfoot in summer and snow (perhaps) in winter. Many soldiers come back with leadership skills honed on the deserts of Iraq or the hills of Afghanistan, and they want to put those skills to work for their state or their country. We saw that, too, last week, when a young Republican veteran jumped into the race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
But in the end, how this generation of soldiers fares back home, away from the guns of war, away from the Taliban, away from the IEDs, depends on all of us. History, as it always is, will be the judge.
Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.
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