A soldier from the CRAZY Troop unit of the Minnesota Army National Guard stood in the office of the Cloquet Armory Monday afternoon with his newborn daughter snuggled against his chest.
"She's nine days old," his wife explained proudly.
The little girl wasn't due until later this month, after her dad is set to deploy for the Middle East, so her early arrival was especially welcome.
"We followed every old wives' tale in the book about how to get labor started, including climbing stairs and long car rides over bumpy roads," explained the wife with a grin. "It must have worked, because not long afterward my water broke and she was born!"
Theirs is only one of many touching stories to be told as the soldiers of the Cloquet-based CRAZY Troop of the 1st Squadron, 94th Cavalry prepared to leave for two weeks of training at Camp Ripley on Wednesday, just prior to their mobilization for a year-long assignment in Kuwait and Iraq.
When the soldiers return from Camp Ripley, their first few days of mobilization will take place in Cloquet as they and their families go through some additional training and events.
A formal send-off ceremony for the unit is being planned for 10 a.m. Friday, May 27, at the Cloquet Area Recreational Center, according to Sgt. First Class Troy Smith, Cloquet Readiness NCO. At that time, the soldiers will march on foot from the Armory to the arena for the ceremony. The official mobilization order will then be read, as well as the names of the soldiers who will be deploying.
There will also be brief speeches by Commanders and VIPs. After that, the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) will provide lunch for the soldiers and their families at the Armory. Donations are needed to assist with the effort, and those wishing to help out should contact Kim at 218-591-0015.
There will be one more day of training before the soldiers depart for their mobilization site for approximately a few months, and then they will move on to Kuwait for the balance of their year's deployment.
The public is encouraged to attend the sendoff to show their support of the unit and its soldiers. Ever since the announcement of the pending deployment, planning has been under way to prepare the soldiers for the task at hand and also to ready their families to carry on during their absence.
"Right now we've got an army of people working for us and it's awesome," said SFC Smith. "We had a bigger turnout for the Community Support Council than we expected and they're really rolling right now."
Smith said the group, made up of volunteers from various veterans' organizations, local businesses and civic groups, has been planning for the departure of the soldiers and ways to help bridge the gap for their families while they are gone.
"They've come up with an idea for a send-off T-shirt," explained Smith. "We want to fill the arena with family members wearing the T-shirts during the sendoff ceremony."
Smith said the group is still in need of some sponsors to help make that happen, however. The T-shirts, produced by Aartvark Graphics of Cloquet, will feature the troop's logo as well as the phrase, "Desert Bound and Proud." The names of 24 business sponsors will be listed on the back of each shirt under the banner, "Proud community supporters of the Cloquet Guard." Some 400 shirts will be printed.
"We need to find 14 more sponsors in the next 10 days," said Smith on Monday afternoon.
Anyone who would like to pitch in as a T-shirt sponsor is invited to contact Tim at Aartvark Graphics, 219-879-5099. Any profits made on the T-shirts will go toward providing seed money for use by the Community Support Council to help out the families of the deployed soldiers when they're away.
Smith said members of the Community Support Council will also serve meals to the soldiers and their family groups during the unit's final days in Cloquet prior to deployment, and have raised funds to purchase individual American flags to distribute at the sendoff event.
"We're really, really blessed to have them working for us," he said.
In all, some 125 area soldiers will deploy with the unit. Smith said 94 percent of the leadership of the group has deployed previously, which he said makes it somewhat easier for them, but he added it will be interesting to see how the younger folks in the unit adapt.
"When you step off that plane in Kuwait, the doors open, that hot air hits you and it's just like a furnace," described Smith, who is headed on his second deployment. "The first couple of days, there are rules about how long you can be out in the desert to help incoming soldiers learn how to adapt. Everything is staggered - our training is staggered and the troop movements are staggered. They've been doing it for a decade over there, and they know what they're doing. We'll be well taken care of."
While some of the veterans have a pretty good idea what to expect while on deployment, Smith said there is a handful of very young soldiers who will be doing everything pretty much for the first time.
"These young troops are raring to go at all times and want to rock and roll," he said. "For most, it's a matter of believing, 'You don't join the team to sit the bench.' They're looking to get
Smith said the first few weeks of an overseas deployment can sometimes seem almost like "business as usual" for both soldiers and their families.
"You'll see kind of a quiet period after we first go away, because most anyone can live without their significant other for a little bit," stated Smith. "But it's going to be shortly after we actually get over there that there's going to be that first uptick in family needs back home. It's when we've been over there for three or four months that folks start to hit the wall. When you first get there, the soldiers are motivated, well trained and have been preparing for over a year. They land on the ground and it's a whirlwind of activity, and it's new and it's all Army. You check out the base, the people, and check out the mission and you're learning and absorbing, and when you do the missions it's real serious stuff. But by about the fourth month it gets to be repetitious and that wall hits.
"Back at home," he continued, "the four-month mark is also when the monotony of [the families'] year will really hit hard and that will be the tough part. Minnesota summers are busy, but as the weather turns colder and everyone gets stuck at home more, that's when we're going to see the support needs for the family increase. It's just the way it is."
That's when the local Family Readiness Group and the Community Support Council become so important in helping to bridge the gap, he said.
The Community Support Council is co-chaired by retired soldier Dennis Picconatto and Kim Callahan, former president of the local DAV and Iraq veteran herself.
"Both military retirees have stepped up and are heading the effort as far as fundraising," said Smith, "and they're backed up by the VFW, DAV, and the American Legion. They are also starting to talk more with civic groups such as Rotary, Kiwanis and the Labor Temple to network and really make things happen. The business community has been involved from the beginning and is growing daily."
Smith said participation in the Community Support Council has been greater than anticipated, and he is gratified to know the local troops have that kind of local support.
"The evening of our first meeting," he said, "we were anticipating having anywhere from two to 12 folks, and I told the commander that we'd be excited to have 18. We had 27 show up and we had to pull out extra tables. That was an awesome moment. It's huge that even here in a great Guard town, you can exceed your expectations when it comes to volunteers."
Two full-time staff members will remain behind at the armory to help operate the facility and lease reservations for community residents and groups who want to make use of the space for special events.
The local soldiers are part of the Duluth-based 1st Squadron, 94th Cavalry, many of whom were previously deployed to Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 2004-2005. While the unit is primarily made up of soldiers from the local area, it also includes soldiers from communities such as Minneapolis, Rochester and even Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Their mission while on deployment will be to guard bases in Kuwait and provide route security throughout Iraq.