When the call went out last winter for the Minnesota National Guard to help with the state's COVID-19 mission, Sgt. First Class Lance Ripka wished he could have raised his hand.
But as Luverne High School's junior varsity wrestling coach, and with a son on the team, Ripka couldn't justify leaving in the middle of wrestling season. The 42-year-old forklift mechanic already had been pulled away enough in 2020: first during the civil unrest after George Floyd's murder, then for a month of training in California.
Ripka returned to duty after wrestling ended last spring, as one of 3,000 Guard members activated during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Now he leads COVID-19 testing sites in Wadena and Hutchinson, where 13 soldiers have been testing about 150 people a day, taking Ripka away from his day job and his family until close to Christmas.
"For me it's just how big this COVID pandemic is, and how badly I want it to be something of the past," Ripka said. "This is something I could do to help that become a reality."
The grind of the past year and a half has worn on the 13,000 soldiers and airmen of the Minnesota National Guard. They have faced high emotions while standing guard amid protests that turned dangerous and endured the monotony of helping during a pandemic that seems to have no end.
Since the beginning of 2020, the governor has activated the Minnesota National Guard for 18 state active duty missions. Soldiers and airmen served a total of 82,870 "man days" on state active duty during 2020, and the total man days for 2021 are expected to approach that number.
That's 10 times more than the entire decade leading up to it, when they served a total of 15,071 man days on 21 state active duty missions.
This past week brought one more call, when Gov. Tim Walz activated 400 more soldiers and airmen to train as certified nursing assistants and temporary nursing aides.
Volunteers are often sought to fill state activation roles before people are called in for mandatory service.
"They believe in the mission and want to help the state of Minnesota," said Lt. Col. Brian Douty, who runs Task Force COVID.
The National Guard ethos has always been that of a weekend warrior: one drill weekend a month, two weeks of training a year. That has shifted the past two decades with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those federal missions are separate from state active duty missions, which typically follow natural disasters.
But as unforeseen circumstances have thrown Minnesota into crisis, from civil unrest to a global pandemic, the burden has fallen again and again on the Minnesota National Guard, as well as their families and day-job employers.
"These activations can disrupt businesses and organizations," said Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke, state adjutant general. "Families of our service members have to adjust their lives during these activations. At times it can be difficult. We are thankful for their support and commitment to their loved ones, and are forever indebted for their sacrifice."
Douty has been in the Guard for 23 years, but he had never been called for state active duty until May 2020, after Floyd's death. Then, on April 11 of this year, Douty was working on his motorcycle in his garage when he got a call from a colonel about a police shooting in Brooklyn Center. Within hours, he and other soldiers had parked their Humvees outside that suburban Police Department to manage an increasingly combustible situation as protests marked Daunte Wright's shooting death.
Then last month, Douty was heading to Camp Ripley for a drill weekend when he got called to re-boot Task Force COVID to assist the overcrowding of hospitals by helping with transitional care facilities. For example, Douty said, a patient who recently had a back surgery might typically recover in a hospital for four or five days. Now, that stay might be shortened to one day to free up hospital beds, with the rest of the recovery at a transitional care facility.
Douty would love to say he sees light at the end of the tunnel of this remarkably busy time for the Guard.
"But just because of the current trends I see with what's going on with COVID right now, it's hard for me to see that," he said.
For First Sgt. Dana Veen, a 50-year-old mail carrier from Worthington, Minn., that means no end in sight for his stays at hotels in the Twin Cities.
He was activated during the protests and riots. It was emotional and awkward for the Guard members to maintain their professionalism while bottles were thrown at them. But that was the job, and Veen and his soldiers did it.
Back home in Worthington, Veen's wife — a nurse and a leader in his unit's Soldier and Family Readiness Group, which provides support for Guard families — worried but supported him.
Starting in November 2020, Veen worked full time on the Guard's COVID mission for eight months. He lived in St. Paul hotels and talked with his wife every night by phone, but only saw family on weekends.
He was activated again last month, stationed at the St. Paul Armory near the Capitol to focus on logistics for the COVID mission. For his wife, Tammy, the recent activation has been difficult. Their youngest child just went off to college, and their empty-nest home feels isolated. But their whole family comes together to support their dad's military service. Three of their four children live nearby and frequently spend time with Tammy. The family time, though less frequent, refreshes Tammy, like when the whole family visited Dana in the Twin Cities a couple of weekends ago, and they went to a Wild game.
"It's a little bit of chaos," she said. "But we're always kind of ready for him to deploy at any time. It does cause stress and anxiety and worry. But we're all supportive. ... Any day you could get that phone call and have to go somewhere. You just learn to adapt and manage on your own and ask for help as you need it."
Ripka, the forklift mechanic and wrestling coach, knows all the missions have weighed on soldiers and airmen. After Floyd's murder, he told his wife to stop watching the news; it was upsetting to know her husband and other soldiers were in harm's way. His daughter, who is 20, is also in the Guard, and was activated both for the riots and for the Chauvin trial.
"The tempo has been really high," Ripka said. "Always being on call, yeah, they're fed up with it, but for the most part they understand it's part of the job, part of their military career."
His orders last until Dec. 15, so he hopes to be back in time for the bulk of the Luverne Cardinals wrestling season.
He can see a light at the end of the tunnel for the most acute version of this pandemic, he said, and believes that the frequency of calls to activate the Guard will soon dip. But Ripka feels the virus will end up being something we will all have to learn to live with.
"The light at the end of the tunnel is when we actually come to that conclusion, and everybody understands it's not going away," he said.