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Sgt. 1st Class Troy Smith of Esko is thrilled to see his 22-month-old son, Cayden, after arriving at Duluth International Airport on Monday afternoon. Smith is on a two-week leave in his yearlong deployment in Kuwait. His duties include driving soldiers in and out of Iraq as the war winds to a close. (Bob King /rking@duluthnews.com)

Duluth-based guard unit comes home for the holidays

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Most members of the Duluth-based 1st Squadron, 94th Cavalry of the Minnesota Army National Guard are still in Kuwait, riding armored trucks and escorting supply convoys in and out of Iraq.

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But through the luck of a draw -- the units were picked out of hat -- about 60 of the 94th's 500 members are home in the Northland for the holidays for a brief break in their yearlong deployment in the Middle East.

Jason Gates, 21, was one of the lucky ones. Gates walked off a United Express jet at Duluth International Airport on Monday afternoon into the arms of his mother, Mechelle Nelson of Duluth.

"I'm just so happy to have him home. I miss seeing him and his sense of humor and just being around him,'' she said, trying but failing to fight back tears. "I'm so proud of him"

Gates, who turned 21 while in Kuwait, said it's great to be home any time, but that being home for the holidays makes it a little more special. He's got no big plans other then to spend as much time with family and friends as possible.

"It hasn't been bad over there, really. Not as hot as you'd think. ... But it's good to be home,'' Gates said.

The Duluth-based 94th, assigned to the Minnesota National Guard's giant Red Bull infantry division, has two units in Duluth, and one each in Cloquet, Pine City and Hibbing. Their usual job is reconnaissance and security in the field, so escorting convoys isn't far from their mission.

Unit members are working out of heavily armored vehicles called MRAP's, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected trucks, designed in recent years to protect against roadside bombs better than previous vehicles.

The unit deployed in May and has been in Kuwait since summer. Their deployment won't end until May 2012, at which point they'll be some of the last new U.S. soldiers to see action in Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn, the code name for the draw-down of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Every member of the unit gets a two-week leave home during their one year deployment. Those home for Christmas will have to head back to Kuwait on Dec. 26.

Sgt. First Class Troy Smith of Esko is the leader of the 13 members of the Cloquet unit deployed to Kuwait. The soldiers spent parts of three days in airplanes and airports in their journey to get home. But all that was a distant memory when he saw his family at the Duluth airport Monday, he said.

"It's going to be an awesome Christmas,'' Smith said as he held his almost two-year-old son, Cayden.

"It's tough to leave the guys (in Kuwait) but it's great to be home with our families," he said. "Our mission really hasn't been that hard. But our families have to bear the burden at home while we're gone."

Aaron Watnemoe of Superior was hugged jointly by his wife, Brittney, and 13-month-old daughter, Kendrix, just steps into the airport off the plane. The couple's second child is due in two months.

"He's already done most of his Christmas shopping online and then had it mailed to our house,'' Brittney said. "But we're still going to the Mall of America for some family time.

"It's so nice to be able to get home for the holidays,'' Aaron said as he hugged Kendrix, noting how much she'd grown in the six months that he's been gone. "It's a lot different being here compared to watching on Skype. It's a lot better in person."

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