The low point?
That’s a tough one.
It could be easy now for Staff Sgt. Farrah Kennedy to look with rose-colored glasses at her past year. After all, as of last weekend, all of the nearly 700 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard’s St. Paul-based 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade will have returned home safely from a yearlong deployment scattered throughout the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield and Operation Inherent Resolve.
But Kennedy’s past year has had so many low points. Was it when Iranian missiles in January rocketed into American military bases in Iraq that housed fellow Minnesota soldiers?
Was it when, as America shut down due to a terrifying virus, she worried how her five children would weather a global pandemic without mom? Or when rockets struck Camp Taji in Iraq, killing two American service members, including a California soldier serving under Kennedy’s brigade?
Was the low point when, on Memorial Day and just blocks from where Kennedy used to live, a white Minneapolis police officer killed a Black man and ignited a national uprising?
If Kennedy, a single mom of five who range in age from 28 to 3, had to pick one low moment from her yearlong deployment, though, it probably came in June, a couple of weeks after George Floyd’s death.
She got two calls from home. One was her next-door neighbor, whose son was a Minneapolis police officer. The neighbor was crying; she feared for her son’s safety. The other was Kennedy’s own son. The 10-year-old was crying, too. It was as if racial lines were being drawn among friends he’d had since preschool. “What’s wrong with my skin?” he asked his mom, half a world away at Camp Buehring, the American military base in Kuwait.
In her office, where she was in charge of administrative duties such as payroll, Kennedy broke down. With a goal to become the first Black female sergeant major in the Minnesota National Guard, she felt she needed at least one overseas deployment on her résumé.
“But if I would have known it would be so chaotic at home when I deployed,” she said, “I never would have done it.”
In normal circumstances, military homecomings are large, emotional events full of pomp and circumstance. Instead, this month’s homecomings for the 34th have been scattered, sedated affairs — intimate family reunions at the airport, packed with emotions but tinged with the reality that they are returning to a state and a nation completely changed from when they left.
A worldwide pandemic has struck the United States harder than any other country. An economy is devastated. A national reckoning on race began with George Floyd’s killing in these soldiers’ home state. Scars remain in the Twin Cities from the unrest of the aftermath, when fellow Guard members were activated to quell the violence. And the political landscape days before a general election feels more divisive than ever.
After a more chaotic deployment than anyone expected, it is this new and different world to which these Minnesotans return.
“The focus now is the reintegration of our soldiers,” said Col. Gregory Fix, the brigade commander. “They’ve all lived with the stress of combat, and now coming back to COVID-19, everything is a little different.”
This was supposed to be a routine deployment. The situation in the Middle East was relatively stable. The 700 Minnesotans were part of a brigade of about 2,000 service members. If a threat emerged — as it would during their deployment, with the reemergence of local militias attacking U.S. troops — Fix would tell concerned parents, “When we go places, we go to win.”
Fix’s brigade had just landed in the Middle East when, days after Christmas, the situation changed. An Iraqi militia killed an American contractor in a rocket attack. In retaliation, the U.S. killed 25 militiamen in airstrikes. That led to an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Helicopters from the 34th helped evacuate hundreds of coalition military personnel from the embassy. Then a U.S. drone strike killed major general Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful people in Iran, followed by Iran’s tactical ballistic missile strikes at Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers. About 100 members of the brigade suffered traumatic brain injuries such as concussions, though nobody died. Of those injuries, 14 were to Minnesotans.
“These things all happened really rapidly,” Fix said. “But it was inspiring how our soldiers just kept going. They never abandoned the mission.”
Floyd’s killing and its aftermath hit the Minnesota soldiers hard. Fix did one-on-one videoconferences with his soldiers to gauge their emotions. The brigade did town halls for soldiers. But it was tough, because of COVID restrictions and because the brigade was so dispersed.
“Our deployment was a unique deployment,” said Kennedy. “I don’t think anyone’s ever quite experienced what we experienced.”
After two weeks quarantined at Fort Hood, Texas, earlier in October, Kennedy hopped in the 2014 Infiniti QX60 she bought after the deployment and drove 16 hours home. She told her children she wouldn’t be home until November, so when Kennedy, dressed in fatigues, walked into Mini-Hops Gymnastics in Plymouth, where her oldest daughter, Rayesha, works as a dance coach, it was quite the surprise. Rayesha kept touching her mom’s face, as if uncertain she was real.
Little by little, Rayesha, 28 years old and a surrogate parent for her younger siblings the past year, has revealed bits of the past year’s trauma that she’d hidden while Mom was deployed. Like when the kids packed go-bags in the middle of the riots, just in case. Or when they filled the bathtub with water, fearful a white supremacist might burn the house down.
Life back home is — well, it’s weird. Kennedy forgets to wear masks sometimes. She has yet to go grocery shopping. She took her aunt to dinner at Benihana in St. Louis Park; it felt strange but safe. She is still adjusting to 10-year-old Rayshawn and 14-year-old Ahkirrah doing virtual school. She’s taking online classes herself, studying for her master’s degree in executive leadership.
But she hasn’t visited the site of Floyd’s killing. She wants to. It feels important. But not yet.
“I don’t think I’m ready to embrace that part of being home just yet,” said Kennedy, who works full-time for the Guard as an equal employment opportunity specialist focused on diversity and inclusion. “I know it’s there, but I’m just taking it slow. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by anything.”
She always knew she’d have to have The Talk with her son, when she discussed the challenges of being a Black man in America. She never imagined it would be when he was 10, when she was half a world away, when nationwide protests started blocks from where she was living when she was his age. Now, she sees someone different from the boy she left a year ago. He’s still a kid at heart — still fascinated by Legos and LeBron James and learning about constellations — but a maturity has risen in him.
“He’s asking grown-man questions,” Kennedy said. “That’s really the biggest change for me. That’s not my little baby boy talking. This is a young Black man talking.”