159 soldiers prepare for nine months in Kuwait
WILLMAR -- A crowd in the hundreds gathered Thursday in the gymnasium at Willmar Senior High School to say farewell to the 159 members of the Minnesota National Guard 682nd Engineering Battalion who are preparing for a nine-month deployment to Ku...
WILLMAR - A crowd in the hundreds gathered Thursday in the gymnasium at Willmar Senior High School to say farewell to the 159 members of the Minnesota National Guard 682nd Engineering Battalion who are preparing for a nine-month deployment to Kuwait.
The battalion, based in Willmar, will be headquartered at Camp Arifjan, south of the capital Kuwait City. There, the soldiers will manage road and building infrastructure maintenance for coalition forces.
In a news release prior to Thursday’s ceremony, Lt. Col. Keith Ferdon, battalion commander, said the deployment is the first for two-thirds of the unit, comprised of members from 99 communities across the state.
Mario Valero is among those deploying for the first time.
A 19-year-old private first class, Valero joined the Guard last fall after graduating from Willmar Senior High School.
“I’m a bit nervous, I guess,” he said, while intermittently chatting with his fiancée Natasha Gomez and entertaining their 11-month-old son, Royce. “The unit has done a great job in preparing us and keeping things calm. But I’m definitely going to miss my family. There have been some tears some nights.”
Ben Brickson commuted from Spring Park, a small community near Lake Minnetonka, to say goodbye to Erik Mares, his girlfriend Kayla’s younger brother. The deployment is also a first for the 22-year-old Mares, a Kimball resident.
“I told him to take care and that we love him,” said Brickson, whose father and grandfather are military veterans. “The holidays are going to be tough, you know; we’re accustomed to seeing him. But we’re set up on Skype and (Apple app) Facetime, so at least we can communicate. We’ll get through it. But it’s hard not to be a little nervous. He’s such a great kid.”
At times the gym was hushed and still as a roster of speakers that included Lt. Gov. Tina Smith addressed the crowd lining the retractable bleachers. They were shadowed by military Color Guard members and the Patriot Guard Riders, who earlier in the day helped escort a vehicle procession from the National Guard Armory to the Senior High.
“Those of you being deployed today are not the only ones to serve,” Smith said during a family-centric keynote address. “Your husbands and wives and partners and children and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters are all making a sacrifice and serving too.”
“You should all be proud protecting and providing the freedoms we all back home here enjoy so much and sometimes take for granted,” said Willmar City Councilman Ron Christianson, an Air Force veteran himself. “My message to you is to travel safe, serve honorably and return home into the arms of the ones you love.”
“What you all are doing is truly heroic,” said Minnesota Wild Chief Operations Officer Matt Majak. It was noted during the ceremony that the battalion will be a part of Task Force Wild while in Kuwait.
“I look forward to your return. Hopefully, we’ll have a Stanley Cup waiting for you,” Majak concluded to civil applause.
Other distinguished guests included Brig. Gen. Jon Jensen, Minnesota Army National Guard chief of staff; Dirk Kloss, Minnesota Army National Guard assistant adjutant general; Col. Scott St. Sauver, post commander at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls; and Lt. Col. Patrick Cornwell, commander of the 1st Battalion, 151st Artillery, headquartered in Montevideo.
According to information from the National Guard, the 682nd Engineering Battalion soldiers began pre-deployment training May 9 at Camp Ripley. They will leave from Minnesota and complete additional training in Texas prior to departing for Camp Arifjan.
The U.S. military describes Camp Arifjan as primarily an Army base, though Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine, Navy and international personnel are also assigned there.
A Minnesota National Guard fact sheet shows the deploying unit is made up of 33 female soldiers and 126 males, ranging in age from 19 to 56.
Video: Minnesota National Guard unit at Willmar headed to Persian Gulf
Video: Before deployment, 682nd Engineering Battalion parades through Willmar