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Staff Sgt. David Bendickson helps his oldest son Mathias, 6, with homework Feb. 12 at a hotel in Apple Valley on their last night together before his deployment. AP Photo/The Pioneer Press, Sherri LaRose-Chiglo

Belgrade guardsman reflects on duty to country, family

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ST. PAUL (AP) -- David Bendickson is checking homework in camouflage and combat boots.

In a cramped Apple Valley hotel room on Feb. 12, the Minnesota National Guard staff sergeant is timing his 6-year-old son, Mathias, keeping him focused.

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The boy has two minutes left on his math.

Bendickson has 12 hours left with his family.

In the morning, Bendickson, 33, will ship out for training in Washington state for two months and then to Iraq for 10 months. Like many others in his National Guard unit, it will be his third overseas deployment in six years, and he is trying hard to balance duty to his country with the needs of his family.

The two minutes are up, and Bendickson shows his son how to sign his name on his schoolwork -- "Why'd we give you a last name that's so long, huh?"

His 5-month-old daughter, Sarah, "the celebrity at the local church," keeps cooing and smiling on the lap of his wife, Jeanne, 32. His other son, Isaac, 4, hugs his knee.

"You just make the best of the time you do have," Bendickson says, looking around the AmericInn hotel room. "We stay here quite a bit."

Since October, Bendickson has been home only on weekends, making the 2½-hour drive from the Rosemount headquarters of the 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division to rural Belgrade every Friday in time to watch "Clone Wars" with his sons. In the Twin Cities, the National Guard housed him on a hideaway bed.

Back home, Isaac would wake up in the morning and run room to room, asking: "Is Daddy still home? Is Daddy still home?" His wife has learned much about home maintenance. "When we got together, I thought, 'One weekend a month, a couple weeks in the summer, I can deal,'" she says, laughing. "I thought, 'Oh, I get to have fun for those days."' She laughs again.

Staff Sgt. Bendickson has done 15 of the 20 years he signed up for -- and keeps a tally of the birthdays he misses. He has missed Mathias' first, fourth and sixth and Isaac's second and third. He'll miss Sarah's first.

"But I've always been there for their first step, their first words and their first tooth," he says proudly. "I haven't missed those."

But there was a reason he enlisted in the active-duty Army in 1994 at the age of 18 -- and signed up for two decades with the National Guard two years later.

"It was just something I wanted to do."

Just after high school, he tried community college. His heart wasn't in it. As soon as his time was up in the Army, "I kind of felt if I just got out, I would've thrown everything away I learned in there." The camaraderie, the sense of teamwork, the people. For a short stint, between 2000 and 2002, he was commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Fargo, N.D.

Three times in the next minute, Bendickson talks about "making a difference," about a sense of service and sacrifice.

The second time he was deployed with the Red Bulls -- a year and a half in Iraq between 2005 and 2007, the longest any division has been deployed there -- was the hardest.

"I always wondered, was he going to come back to me the same person or a broken man? Were (the children) going to have the same dad?" Jeanne says.

Overseas communication was often terse: "When he has a job to do, he has a job. He puts his head down."

Bendickson acknowledges how small the day-to-day problems back home can seem compared with life in Iraq.

"You really could never let your guard down," he says. When he heard of a faulty boiler back home, he thought, "It's not going to kill anyone, so who cares?"

His first homecoming -- from peacekeeping duties in Bosnia in 2004 -- was accompanied by counseling. Coming back, soldiers feel out of place: The world they left has aged a year, and they missed it. They are reintroduced to their relatives.

But after two deployments, "Now we don't sweat stuff like that," Bendickson says. "Somebody that says, 'It's the deployment that broke us up' -- well, there was something else that was wrong. Communication gets you through it."

And as for communication, "It's much better than my uncle had in World War II," he says.

That would be uncle Willard Olson, whom Bendickson grew up next to in rural New London. Olson also served in the 34th back when it was the first Army division to be deployed to Europe in World War II. Bendickson's father, Dennis, also served in the Minnesota National Guard for 10 years.

Bendickson is more likely to be recalled to duty than most: His job, as a topographical engineer -- a mapmaker -- is a new one for the Minnesota National Guard, which puts him in demand.

Along those lines, life in the Guard can lead to career anxiety, his wife notes. It's a tough economy, and Bendickson doesn't have a job lined up for his return in 2010. He has a bachelor's degree in geology from North Dakota State University, but in October he was laid off from his teaching job at the Willmar Area Learning Center. His wife quit her accounting job in Fargo to watch the kids while Bendickson started working full-time with the National Guard.

The Guard offered immediate security, but it put career advancement for both of them on hold.

As for the job to be done in Iraq, "I know the area more, and I know what I'm expected to do. And what to expect of myself."

The Red Bulls will be responsible for overseeing coalition forces in the southern third of Iraq -- primarily helping rebuild infrastructure and maintain political stability, rather than perform day-to-day security operations.

This time, Bendickson is prepared for what he'll miss. Besides his family, of course.

"The smell of a lake," he says, pausing to add: "The seasons." In Iraq, the sky is orange, not blue, from all the sand. When it rains, it rains mud.

"Here you can complain about the weather, but at least you can complain about something different every day," he says on a chilly Thursday evening in Apple Valley.

There are 10 hours left now, and the kids -- after sloppy Joes and hot dogs -- are watching television. The next morning, Bendickson will fly from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Fort Lewis, Wash. And in April, he -- along with 1,036 other Red Bulls -- will head to Iraq until February 2010.

For a third of them, it won't be the first time.

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