Ariel Jarvis felt a sense of nostalgia Thursday night as she sat at a ceremonial last dinner with her sisters and a friend in St. Paul.
This wasn't her first send-off meal. Last September, Jarvis was part of one before heading for basic training.
"I keep thinking back to last year ... it was one of the scariest moments of my life," said Jarvis, of Woodbury. "But at the same time, I know I'm ready."
"It does feel like last year, but this time she won't be 500 miles away. She won't be a phone call away," said her younger sister, Malini Jarvis. "She's going to the other side of the world."
At a ceremony at the St. Paul RiverCentre Exhibition Hall, Jarvis joined more than 650 members of the National Guard's Rosemount-based 34th Red Bull Infantry Division soon to deploy for 10 months in support of Operation Spartan Shield. The soldiers, who come from 220 communities in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota, will be based in Kuwait and responsible for operations across 10 countries.
On Thursday, about a dozen politicians and 30 leaders of Minnesota cities, including St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, sat alongside families who will soon say goodbye to their loved ones.
Gov. Mark Dayton thanked service members and their families for their sacrifice.
"Know how proud we are of you and how much we admire your patriotism and courage," Dayton told the soldiers. "Your mission is critical — protect foreign people in foreign lands. You are true American heroes."
There was a message for their families, as well. "Know that I'm grateful for everything you do for allowing us to serve," said Maj. Gen. Benjamin J. Corell.
Jarvis is among 57 percent of the soldiers who will be deployed for the first time. Several said they don't know what to expect or how their families will fare while they're gone.
"It's important to have as much connection as possible," said Chaplain Stephanie Christoffels. She plans to call her three young children — ages 6, 4 and 1 — during bedtime.
"We've been talking to them about what it means to deploy," she said.
Orel Kitio told his three children — ages 5, 4 and 3 months — that he's going overseas to protect the country.
"I don't know how my kids will receive me when I come back," he said. "We say I'm going to be gone for a long time, but I don't think they realize what that means."
For Division Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Hjelmstad, embarking on his fourth deployment doesn't get any easier. He's seen the demands of the National Guard increasing year after year.
"Once upon a time back in my younger days ... Guard career deployments were kind of a phone call that you weren't expecting saying, 'Hey, get ready, the country needs you,' " Hjelmstad said. "Now it's more of a cyclic thing. We have an expectation to be ready with the force-generation cycle that we go through."
The group will first head to Fort Hood, Texas, for about a month of pre-mobilization training, then ship out for a nine-month stint in the Middle East.
This mission, Operation Spartan Shield, is different from Hjelmstad's previous deployments. He said in this type of deployment participants will have "opportunities to develop leadership skills, to teach, coach and mentor the soldiers around you and learn from the soldiers around you."
"For myself it's going to be a different deployment in that I'm not going to be in the position of being out on the roads," he said.
Hjelmstad said there are always issues leaving family behind.
"You work to prepare yourself and them to go," he said. "You work to get your finances in order, your household in order. You work to do today all the things you won't be there to do for the next 10 months or so."
Christelle Kitio said she plans to ask other military families for advice, like what to tell her young children when they keep asking for their dad. She said she's been anxious as her husband prepares for his first deployment.
"My only wish is that he comes back in August," she said. "I cannot think of anything but those 10 months he's going to be gone."