CAMP BUEHRING, KUWAIT -- The Middle East seems about as far from the Upper Midwest as one can get.

In distance, sure. But at least in Kuwait, in nearly everything else as well. A slab-flat, treeless desert stretches to the horizon in place of lake country forests and prairies. Stray camels instead of darting deer are seen along highways. Tracked vehicles are tanks, not snowmobiles. And surprisingly cold winds whip up not blizzards but sandstorms that give new meaning to the phrase "true grit."

Yet for some 2,700 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division -- known as the Red Bulls -- Kuwait is home. At least until they begin redeployment this spring.

For some of the soldiers it is back home in Minnesota where a relentless, inscrutable threat awaits: Not terrorism, but unemployment.

In keeping with the Red Bull motto -- "Attack! Attack! Attack!" -- Col. Eric Kerska, brigade commander, is confronting the new adversary head-on. But he has also called in reinforcements.

"We did very well against the enemy," Kerska said, speaking of his soldiers' combat performance during multiple post-9/11 deployments. The new foe, unemployment, requires new tactics.

"We quickly found out that we couldn't do this by ourselves. So we called back home, and through the good graces of corporate America, the governor's office, the adjutant general's office, and the state colleges and universities, we brought together this team of professionals that understand this problem, and they came over here and gave one-on-one help to our soldiers."

Answering the call to assist Minnesotans who have answered their country's call was a cavalry consisting of a nine-member "Employment Resource Team," or ERT. In a first of its kind effort, the ERT traveled to Kuwait -- still technically a combat zone -- in early March.

The mission was clear: To defeat the soon-to-return Red Bulls' high jobless rate. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) estimates that 19 percent of the soldiers have no position waiting at home -- more than triple the state's 5.7 percent unemployment rate.

The best therapy: a job

Camp Buehring in northern Kuwait is a compact compound of temporary khaki-colored buildings defying the emptiness of a vast windswept plain of sand. The sand skids and swirls in all directions, and ends up everywhere. Every night you empty it from your shoes.

The ERT team of public- and private-sector professionals included several military veterans, whose backgrounds helped them relate to the Red Bulls. Led by Chaplain (Col.) John Morris and Maj. Aaron Krenz, the team delivered half-day seminars in bare-bones canvas structures that double as barracks when the camp is crowded.

The soldiers were at ease but attentive during the sessions, which combined PowerPoint presentations with often powerful, first-person stories. Team members urged the Red Bulls to not wait too long to take the next steps in their careers. They gave tips on how best to translate military skills and duties into the kinds of experiences and capabilities that are relevant on a résumé. They coached the troops on confidently presenting themselves as individuals in an interview, a skill that has be learned, or relearned, by soldiers grown accustomed to answering for, and as, a unit.

But ERT instructors also stressed that fellow Red Bulls, as well as former Red Bulls, are as vital a resource back home as they have been in the war zone -- a smart place to start building a network of job contacts. Discussions of regional job trends and opportunities for further education rounded out the program.

In the evenings, soldiers streamed back from barracks for one-on-one sessions focused on their personal situations. Over a week, more than 1,000 citizen-soldiers went through the program

"I love the delegation," Chaplain Morris said after a late-night session. "They represent the best of America and Minnesota. They could have stayed home, and no one would have thought the less of them. This is not easy duty: the jet lag; they sucked down dust for the first few days. It's a harsh environment. These days are long. They're passionate, and their passion is backed up by expertise.

"This is literally life-saving information in that you enable people to find new directions and take care of families and be productive citizens, which is what everyone wants for their soldiers."

Most of the Red Bulls, for their part, seemed more concerned about comrades than themselves.

"I'm here for my dudes," said First Lt. Daniel Pasche, meaning the soldiers in his platoon. Originally from Starbuck, Pasche is a University of Minnesota ROTC graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering. Self-effacing but confident, he hopes to work for a defense contractor. But he needs to see where his wife, who is also in the Army, will deploy.

Pasche said he was less worried about himself, but instead more concerned about his men. "They're really good guys, and I know that they'd be good guys for a position at a company. But they're guys who don't necessarily have a lot of experience."

Capt. Samuel Andrews has particular concerns about younger soldiers, who he said often are not as positive about their futures.

"And there's another group," he said, who have known "nothing but war since it started. My peer group commissioned, went on their basic course, and they went on their first deployment. They came home, didn't know what to do with themselves because now they're like, 'Wow, that was a really intense experience, and I'm not sure how to get over that.' And then the next deployment came up, and because they were a leader they were brought over early.

"And they've done that two or three times now, so they don't even know where to start."

Not knowing where to start can end badly, said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard. Speaking to the ERT before it departed, Nash shared his worries about unemployed Red Bulls going down a rabbit hole of what he called "second- and third-order effects" -- family and relationship stress, alcohol and drugs, trouble with the law. And, Nash noted, in rare cases, suicide.

Chaplain Morris put it this way: "85 percent of mental health issues related to redeployment and reintegration can be solved by a good job. We're putting all our money into beefing up programs for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), when the big issue is jobs."

If you offered troops two lines at the airport back home, Morris said, one of them leading to "the world's best licensed psychologist, and a team of behavioral mental health specialists," and the other leading to "a person who can get you a meaningful job that can pay your bills" he is certain the jobs line would be many times longer.

"It's a basic human need," he adds. "When you don't have a job after being a hero, your sense of self-worth ... erodes very quickly. I've seen proud warriors reduced to tears, being rejected time and time again in the workplace."

From boxing to jujitsu

Specialist Codey Castle of tiny St. Thomas, west of Le Sueur, isn't sure what he'll do when he gets home. Before going to Kuwait, he worked at NAPA Auto Parts, Precision Auto Body, and odd jobs.

"I've worked on cars all my life, because my dad did it, because we didn't have any money to pay someone to do it," Castle said, describing his modest upbringing. "Every car I've ever owned I had to fix to drive it."

Castle said he's told prospective employers "that I was in the army, and they ask me what I do. And I tell them at 11 Bravo we train for combat. It really doesn't apply to anything I want to do on the civilian side."

Employers respect his service, he adds, but don't readily see how what he's learned in the army fits their needs. But he said the ERT program is "helping explain some of these things."

ERT member Chris Hill, director of recruitment for U.S. Bank, said the need was for soldiers "to start thinking in terms of their skill sets. And it's really all of the things that employers have a hard time with, and what creates turnover in corporate America -- people not showing up for work, not following up on what they're asked to do. Loyalty, teamwork. So those were the things we needed to start drawing out of them, and that was a challenge for them."

Capt. Neal Schau, of Mayer, thinks soldiers need to challenge employers as well. "In order for someone to utilize this experience to their benefit," he said, "they really need to go back and teach their employers the type of skills they got while deployed that are putting them ahead of their peers."

Specialist Cabral Garibay will also go home unemployed. But he said the ERT was "very helpful, long and short-term." He has come to see that "being in the military brings out more responsibility. You're able to deal with more pressure, so when you go home you can put it all together." Born in Mexico but reared in St. Paul, Garibay smiled when he recalled placing second in an all-Army martial arts competition two years ago.

Metaphorically at least, that's another skill that could come in handy. Chaplain Morris described the soldiers' challenge as adapting to a workplace where what's needed is "a very sophisticated set of emotional, verbal and interpersonal skills that you haven't had to rely on in combat -- to go from boxing to jujitsu in 90 days. And you're competing with people who already have their black belts."

Pvt. First Class Linsey Williams, of Coon Rapids, is yet another martial arts fan, reflecting her decidedly eclectic interests. She graduated from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and began studying fiction writing at Columbia College in Chicago before joining the Guard. "I don't think I chose a common path," she allowed. But the military path was also chosen by her sister and brother, who also serve. "I've got a great military mom," she added, reflecting what's quite common among Red Bulls -- a family military tradition.

Williams also represents another kind of ambition: Some soldiers aren't tired of fatigues, and still want to serve.

"I'm 22 -- just like the catch," she says, referring to her age and one of her favorite novels. But unlike Yossarian in "Catch-22," Williams finds logic in military life, and wants to continue working in public affairs, hoping to transfer to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

But the planned military drawdown has reduced opportunities, even for seasoned soldiers like those in the Minnesota National Guard.

"I'm playing a waiting game," Williams said, adding that if she doesn't deploy again, she'll return home to study kinesiology. If so, she may have company: The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system recorded 57 percent more veterans and service members enrolled since 2008.

The "waiting game," and the tug-of-war between work and school, isn't unusual for this age group and type of military unit, explained Jim Finley, director of Veterans Employment Programs at DEED. "Typically, infantry attracts younger soldiers. Older soldiers have more job skills and work history, and an opportunity to transfer out and learn new skills, so the older soldiers do not have as high an unemployment rate."<

Older soldiers are also more likely to own their own businesses, a situation that creates a different set of challenges. Unlike employers, customers have no legal obligation to returning soldiers.

Several soldiers noted that there's a big difference between big and small firms.

"When you have five people in a business, taking one person out is 20 percent of the workforce," said Capt. Schau. Crediting 3M as an exemplary employer, he said that "it's more of an inconvenience, however significant, than an issue for larger companies."

U.S. Bank is another big firm that's firmed up its support of soldiers, said Sgt. First Class Chad Gohman, of St. Paul, who is on his second deployment. The bank has been "exceptional," he said. That might be the word to describe Gohman himself, who's building a career in investments. He's a fast-tracker in another way: He's on the National Guard Marathon Team, and at Camp Virginia he won the half-marathon division of a race commemorating the Bataan Death March. In a sandstorm.

But Gohman downplayed his accomplishments, focusing instead on his employer. "They recognize that the reserves are embedded within the U.S. population, and they definitely honor our service."

Looking for a chance

Bruce Kiefner, talent acquisition manager at Best Buy, said that this Midwestern modesty endured in the Mideast, but that it's not always what's needed in the job market.

"We have spent time with a lot of quality individuals who are extremely disciplined, energized, and just good people, who just have to move past their humbleness," he said.

"That's a really hard transition for a lot of guys," said Capt. Andrews. "The needs of the collective always outweigh the individual."

But if Red Bulls were humble about themselves, they weren't about, well, the Red Bulls. During dozens of interviews and informal chats, every soldier, regardless of rank, attributed the same enduring virtues to fellow soldiers. None said they deserved anything -- except a chance.

"These soldiers are some of the most creative, tenacious people that I could hope to be around," said Pvt. First Class Williams. "I can only hope that employers and schools throughout Minnesota continue to see that, and recognize that, in each of our individuals. Because, yes, they are Red Bull soldiers. And we are all one unit. However, we are all separate individuals, especially when we get back to the civilian world. ... So keep your eyes out for them."

The ERT is doing just that. "This is the coolest thing I've ever done," said DEED's Finley before a late-night flight back home. Reflecting the delegation's determination to give back, he added that "there is no one on this team who would have traded places. It was grueling, but we did it with a smile. We had very much in mind that these folks have been doing this for a year. There is a very grateful Minnesota waiting for them to get back."

"What we need are employers willing to mentor us to become productive citizens," said Chaplain Morris. "Don't give us jobs; make us earn them. Don't enable us; empower us. And challenge us to come home and continue to defend the nation by becoming productive citizens. ...

"I've been to war twice now with Red Bulls. I've buried Red Bulls. I've knocked on the doors of families to tell them their Red Bull's not coming back.

"I'd tell Minnesota employers: I'm returning the best Minnesotans we have."


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.