Mahelia Hunter has mixed emotions as she prepares for her first federal deployment with the Minnesota National Guard.

She served during the unrest following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Now, she’s deploying to Guantanamo Bay for a yearlong mission.

“It’s really hard to leave our communities. I feel bad that I have to leave during such civil unrest and there’s a lot of changes happening. I’m just hoping that I can learn some skills in Cuba and apply that when I get back to Minnesota,” said Hunter, a 19-year-old Black woman from Shakopee.

Her mother and sister took part in a ceremony Sunday for the 150 soldiers from the 34th Military Police Company, based in Stillwater, who will be providing security at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base after training in Fort Bliss, Texas. The ceremony was abbreviated and scaled back because of COVID-19, but loved ones still gathered at the Stillwater armory for lunch and parting words from company commander Capt. Troy Davidson.

“The last several months have been strange and challenging for everyone. And for our citizen soldiers who have been preparing for a deployment, it’s been just that much more strange and challenging,” he told the soldiers’ families and friends, who were wearing face masks.

When a record number of National Guard soldiers were sent to the Twin Cities after Floyd’s death May 25, the 34th Military Police Company was one of the first units to respond. More than 7,000 soldiers across the state were deployed in what Gov. Tim Walz described as the first full mobilization of the Guard since World War II and the largest deployment in state history.

Davidson said while the unit has had a year to prepare for the Guantanamo Bay deployment, it had mere hours to respond to the unrest that coincided with annual training. After active duty in the Twin Cities, the unit went straight back to preparing for the upcoming mission.

“We’re having to adapt and overcome,” he said, adding that drills were conducted remotely in April and May because of the pandemic. But he said the unit has a “legacy of excellence” and recently received the Major General Harry H. Bandholtz Award, an honor the unit also received in 2019, which recognizes the top military police units in the U.S. Army.

The company commander, who lives in Minneapolis, said it was difficult to reconcile the “post-apocalyptic hellscape” of the unrest with the place he calls home. “It felt like a war zone but you recognize it as a place you’ve gone shopping before,” Davidson said. “It was surreal.”

The back-to-back deployments were emotional for many of the families at Sunday’s event.

Kristy Stauffer said the anticipation of deployment makes the upcoming mission harder in a sense than the state active duty. “Knowing for a year that he’s leaving, that’s hard,” she said of her husband, Staff Sgt. Fred Stauffer. “But I was more scared for him during the state active duty than I was for his last deployment because of the constant news coverage and it was at home. There’s something to be said about feeling safe at home, and while it wasn’t in Cottage Grove, it was still very close to home.”

Stauffer said he deployed to Guantanamo Bay in 2017 with the 257th Military Police Company based in Monticello. It will be different this time around, he said, because of the added challenges of the pandemic. It’s unclear if the couple’s children, Gavin, 13, and Maddie, 8, will attend school virtually or in person. But the certainty of communication, whether that’s FaceTime, text messages or a phone call, makes distance easier to manage.

“We do the best we can to make sure everything’s in order, but unfortunately a lot of things like that are just outside of our control,” he said.