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Send-off events pack school gymnasiums as 560 area soldiers prepare for deployment

Hundreds of people pack the Montevideo school gymnasium Saturday to send off the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery as they prepare to deploy in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

MONTEVIDEO -- Hundreds of people packed school gymnasiums around the region Saturday -- many wearing red colors in honor of the Red Bulls division -- to send off the 560 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery as they prepare for deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Now we've made it very, very personal," said Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, during the send-off ceremony in Montevideo, headquarters for the battalion. Shellito's comments followed the roll call of the soldiers from the Montevideo unit and his observation that the soldiers, their families and their communities are in this together.

The soldiers being deployed are with units based in Montevideo, Appleton, Olivia, Madison, Morris, Ortonville, and Marshall. They will leave April 19 for training at Fort Hood, Texas. They are expected to deploy in July for Camp Virginia in north-central Kuwait.

They will provide convoy escort service to troops in Iraq and serve in command, maintenance, communication and medical roles at Camp Virginia.

They are scheduled to return to Minnesota in April, 2010.

The soldiers will be led by Lt. Col. Scott St. Sauver, who described his troops as well prepared, trained and resourced for the mission ahead. But he also told the family and community supporters in Montevideo that he knew when the orders came months ago that more than his soldiers were being called to duty. When soldiers in the western Minnesota communities that comprise the battalion are called, "you deploy each community," St. Sauver said.

"Role models," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said of the troops. He was joined by First Lady Mary Pawlenty at the send-off events.

Rep. Collin Peterson was also among those who saluted the troops -- and emphasized the importance of the local support for them. "To see a community come out and support our troops like this is a great thing," said Peterson.

"We've got things going the right direction in Iraq," said Peterson in Montevideo. "We want to be sure we finish this off."

St. Sauver said the troops are anxious to get the duty underway and completed, a point many troops made individually afterwards. They have been aware of the deployment for several months, making a 12-month deployment an 18-months experience.

Among those who expressed his desire to get the service underway and completed at the Montevideo send-off was Spc. Randall Conaway, who held his nine-month-old son as friends came by to wish him well. This will be the second deployment for Conaway, who served previously with a Kansas unit.

He and his wife Geneva said the return after the separation was difficult for them both. She tended to their first child, an infant then but two years old now, while her husband was away. She said they both appreciate the family support readiness groups that are assisting the local troops, and hope that will help ease the difficulties of both the separation and the transition back that will follow.

But for now, said Geneva, the only thing they can do is steel their reserve for what lies ahead. "You get yourself in your battle mind," she said.

Appleton, Montevideo, Olivia and Marshall hosted send-off events Saturday to let the troops and their families know they have their support for what lies ahead. Madison, Ortonville and Morris had held their events one week earlier.

This is the first deployment for 73 percent of the soldiers, who range in age from 18 to 51, according to information from the National Guard. The 560 soldiers come from 234 different communities in the state.